As states and cities debate whether to welcome more refugees to their communities, three organizations sued the Trump administration Thursday over a recent presidential executive order that allows local officials to reject refugees.
The lawsuit filed in a Maryland federal court by three resettlement agencies contends the executive order threatens to keep thousands of refugees from being reunited with their families and placed in communities where they can thrive.
President Donald Trump issued the order in September when he also reduced the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the country from 30,000 in 2019 to 18,000 in 2020, the lowest level since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980.
The order requires state and local governments to give consent to whether they will accept refugees, giving governors and mayors a say over how welcoming they want to be.
Since the order, at least five states have signaled they will accept refugees, and no governor has said they plan to use the new authority to keep out refugees. Even so, if the governors stay silent, the resettlement agencies cannot place refugees in those states.
Resettlement agencies have been scrambling to get written consent from local officials. But they say the State Department has not specified which officials are authorized to give it: Is it the mayor, the county board of supervisors or the governor?
Securing consent at the local level is especially complicated in states like Pennsylvania, where one county has 130 municipalities alone.
The lawsuit was filed in a Maryland federal court by the three resettlement agencies — HIAS, a Jewish-American nonprofit group, Church World Service, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.
The agencies, three of the nine that work with the federal government to resettle refugees in the United States, asked the court to halt the order.
Trump's order says the agencies were not working closely enough with local officials on resettling refugees and that his administration acted to respect communities that believe they do not have the jobs or other resources to be able to take in refugees. Refugees have the right to move anywhere in the United States after their initial resettlement, but at their own expense.
Conservative states like Texas and Tennessee have sued in the past to stop refugee resettlement. But they have not stated their positions since the order was issued.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said last Tuesday that his state will continue to receive refugees — as long as local jurisdictions agree to it.
"The governor believes it should be a local decision," Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.
Agencies said they already were working closely with local officials before placing refugees, and that the order is simply adding barriers to the process.
Trump's policy threatens to dismantle the 40-year-old resettlement program that has long enjoyed bipartisan support and was considered a model for protecting the world's most vulnerable people because of its close coordination with communities that welcomed refugees, agencies say.
Under the new policy, resettlement agencies must now spend more time and resources getting written consent from officials to confirm they want refugees. The agencies must submit that documentation by Jan. 21 or lose federal funds to be able to reunite families and place refugees in places with jobs, language classes and other support for them.
The executive order requires written consent before refugees can be placed in a community. But it's unclear whether that simply means a letter, like one the Utah governor sent to the White House asking for more refugees, to comply with the requirement or if another official form is needed, according to the agencies.
"There is just mass confusion," said Mark J. Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS.
He said the director of a HIAS affiliate in Pittsburgh was "pulling his hair out because it was not clear who to get consent from."
Meanwhile, Massachusetts has done away with many of its county governments, making it impossible to get county approval across much of the state where agencies have been placing refugees for years, Hetfield said.
Jen Barile, director of Montana's branch of the International Refugee Committee, the lone U.S. refugee resettlement agency for that state, told the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula that she first thought she needed consent from the city's mayor. Then she learned it had to come from Missoula County's government. She said she now sends consent forms to both city and county officials and to the state's governor.
Communities ranging from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Holland, Michigan, have voted unanimously to welcome refugees.
Resettlement agencies were already closing many programs and laying off employees because of the drop in federal funding, which is tied to the number of refugees resettled in the country.
"The President's order and resulting agency actions threaten to deprive thousands of refugees of their best chance to successfully build a new life and to burden thousands of U.S. families who are waiting to reunite with their parents, children, and other relatives fleeing persecution," the lawsuit stated.