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Indiana governor faces lawsuit for blocking Syrian refugees

November 24, 2015

A lawsuit challenging the Indiana governor's decision to stop state agencies from helping resettle Syrian refugees alleges that the action wrongly targets the refugees based on their nationality and violates the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the federal lawsuit Monday night on behalf of Indianapolis-based nonprofit Exodus Refugee Immigration. It accuses Gov. Mike Pence of violating the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by accepting refugees from other countries but not from Syria.

The first-term Republican governor objected to plans for refugees to arrive in Indiana following the deadly attacks in Paris. Five days after the Nov. 13 attacks, a family that had fled war-torn Syria was diverted from Indianapolis to Connecticut when Pence ordered state agencies to halt resettlement activities.

The ACLU of Indiana will ask a federal judge Tuesday to put a temporary hold Pence's directive that state agencies stop helping with the resettlement of Syrian refugees by using federal money to provide services such as housing and medical care, legal director Ken Falk said.

"These are people who have been vetted extensively by the federal government and have been approved for resettlement. Our lawsuit is quite simple. It argues that the governor has no right to bar refugees because doing so clearly violates equal protection," Falk said during a news conference.

Falk added that he expects similar lawsuits to be filed against some of more than two-dozen states — most with Republican governors, like Pence — that have taken actions similar to Indiana's in suspending programs to resettle Syrian refugees.

Pence's office released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the governor is confident he has the authority to suspend Indiana's participation in resettling Syrian refugees and he will not reverse course until Congress and the Obama administration take action to "pause this program and implement measures necessary to address security gaps acknowledged by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security."

Pence said last week he was "deeply moved" by the refugees' plight but was concerned about militants possibly infiltrating the United States through the refugee program.

"We're very confident that we have the legal authority to suspend the resettlement program relative to Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana and I think it is the proper course," he said.

Individual states do not have the legal authority to block refugee placement. The Refugee Act of 1980 dictates that refugee resettlement is managed by the federal government, which consults with state refugee coordinators and the nine refugee resettlement agencies that have contracts with the government, but that consultation is largely to ensure the refugees are settled in cities with adequate jobs, housing and social services.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration sent letters last week to Exodus Refugee Immigration and Catholic Charities Indianapolis saying plans to accept two Syrian families should be halted.

Carleen Miller, Exodus Refugee's executive director, said she had no choice last week but to find another place for the Syrian refugee family because of their imminent arrival.

Exodus has settled 892 refugees, including some from Syria, in the past fiscal year in Indiana, according to the ACLU. The group is projected to settle about the same number during 2016, including 19 Syrians approved for refugee status by the federal government and are expected to arrive in the next few weeks or months, the ACLU said.

Exodus receives federal money through the state's Office of Refugee Programs to assist in resettlement of federally approved and screened refugees. The money is used to assist with employment training, English language education and other services, according to the ACLU.

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