Can States Refuse Refugees?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 16, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Syrians have been fleeing their war-torn country in droves over the past few years, sparking a humanitarian crisis in Europe as refugees try to find safe haven in Europe and America. On Friday night, a terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria conducted a series of attacks in Paris, killing hundreds of civilians.

In response, conservative governors have been lining up to announce they won't allow Syrian refugees into their states. But do they actually have that power? Can states refuse to allow refugees to cross their borders?

Separation of Country and State

No, governors can't prohibit refugees from living in their state. But that doesn't mean they can't make it more difficult. As Lucy Carrigan, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee told the Washington Post:

"Governors and state officials do not have the capability to prevent a refugee who is here and admitted lawfully to the U.S. from residing in their state. It is not something they can do. There is a close collaboration with governors and mayors and community leaders about the capacity of the area for refugees and where they can go, but once they have legal status, you cannot impede their transit between different states."

The Constitution allots some power to the federal government and reserves some authority for the states. And immigration is firmly under federal control. (Although the exact limits of that control are currently under debate.) When it comes to refugee resettlement, the federal government decides who may enter the country and what legal status immigrants will have.

An Unwelcome Welcome

As Carrigan points out, however, while states can't bar the door, they don't have to welcome refugees with open arms, either. Many states, like Michigan, have programs in place to aid refugees in finding homes, jobs, and a friendly community. And on Monday, many state governors, like Michigan's Rick Snyder, announced they would be suspending those aid programs in light of the Paris attacks.

Does it make sense to punish people fleeing a civil war for terrorist acts? No. Can these state governors really keep Syrian refugees out of their states? No. But can they make sure refugees don't receive any state aid and stoke unfounded fear of refugees? Sadly, yes.

If you need help with an application for asylum or your application has been denied, you may want to talk to an experienced immigration attorney near you.

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