By Mica Rosenberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. federal judge ruled on Wednesday to block an executive order by President Donald Trump that only allows refugees to be resettled if state and local officials agree to accept them.
In November, a coalition of refugee resettlement groups filed a lawsuit in Maryland to halt the executive order signed by Trump in September.
Last week, Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, which resettles more refugees than any other state, became the first statewide official to refuse to accept refugees.
The latest ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, temporarily stops the U.S. government from enforcing that position.
The White House issued a statement saying this was a "preposterous" ruling that "robbed millions of American citizens of their voice and their say in a vital issue directly affecting their communities."
"We are expeditiously reviewing all options to protect our communities and preserve the integrity of the refugee resettlement process," it said.
So far, 42 governors – 19 of them Republican – and more than 100 local governments have consented to resettlement, according to a tally by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the organizations that brought the lawsuit. Florida and Georgia, two other states that receive a large number of refugees, have not taken a public position on resettlement.
Melanie Nezer from HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit group that resettles refugees and is a plaintiff in the case, said in an email that for now, "refugee resettlement will continue as before, including in Texas and the small number of states and counties that have not provided consent."
The Trump administration has said the consent requirement was aimed at ensuring that communities receiving refugees have the resources to integrate them into their populations.
However, refugee resettlement groups say that giving local governors and mayors a veto over who they accept is unconstitutional and would disrupt the way the groups work.
Cutting immigration has been a centerpiece of Trump's presidency and 2020 re-election campaign. One of his first acts after assuming office in January 2017 was to issue an order cutting in half a plan put in place by Democratic President Barack Obama, to resettle 110,000 refugees in fiscal 2017. Since then, the cap has been slashed each year Trump has been in office.
For 2020, the administration set a ceiling of 18,000 refugee admissions, the lowest since the modern refugee program began in 1980.
Trump said during an October campaign rally in Minnesota that he had delivered on a pledge to "give local communities a greater say in refugee policy" and increase vetting.
Immigration experts contend that new arrivals, who are thoroughly screened and enter the country with legal status, often quickly fill jobs and contribute to local tax revenues.
State Department guidance to the nine national resettlement agencies released last year said the groups must obtain the consent from governors and county executives in areas where refugees will be placed. The agencies must submit funding proposals to the State Department by Jan. 21.
(Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Richard Chang)