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State cites security threat in bid to block Syrian refugees

January 18, 2016

The administration of Gov. Mike Pence defended its bid to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana by asserting the federal government has not satisfactorily addressed security concerns.

The state through the office of Attorney General Greg Zoeller filed a 65-page response brief late Friday to a nonprofit agency’s federal lawsuit. Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc. seeks an injunction barring the Pence administration from withholding federal grant funds for Syrian refugee resettlement. A hearing on the injunction request is scheduled for Feb. 15.

Pence announced suspension of federal grants to Exodus in November, prompting the nonprofit’s lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The suit contends the state is preempted from actions that attempt to block resettlement because immigration and refugee resettlement are matters reserved for the federal government, which has thoroughly vetted those granted refugee status.

 “The State of Indiana, to this point, is not satisfied that the United States has adequately discharged its obligation to consult with the State concerning refugee resettlement, particularly as it relates to refugees fleeing Syria,” the state’s response brief says. “Given the serious public security risks posed by such refugees, State officials should be afforded more access to information concerning refugees resettling here, the process by which they were designated to come here, and the extent to which it is even possible to conduct a worthwhile review of their backgrounds. Accordingly, the Governor’s directive is part of a larger effort not only to defer resettlement of Syrian refugees without better background checks, but also to persuade the United States to consult more seriously with States.

“Based on the available information to date, the Governor’s judgment is that such resettlements are not safe at this time, and his action carrying out that judgment is a restrained, targeted response to a very real security threat, well within the traditional authority of States to protect public safety,” the brief says.

Despite Pence’s announcement and personal appeals, Exodus proceeded with a planned resettlement of a family of four. Exodus plans to resettle additional Syrian families in Indiana this year.

The state’s brief warns terrorists have infiltrated the United States and other nations posing as refugees and argues Obama administration officials expressed concerns about potential gaps in the vetting process.

But the state in its response also argues Exodus has no standing to assert the equal protection rights of refugees. “(W)hile the Governor’s directive may harm Exodus’s economic interests, it does not harm the refugees,” the brief says. “Exodus has said it will resettle future Syrian refugees regardless of the Governor’s directive … and the state will continue to pay benefits directly to refugees who are resettled here (though it will not pay Exodus’s social services resettlement claims.)”

Meanwhile, a top ACLU immigration attorney, Cecillia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, has entered an appearance in the litigation. ACLU officials did not reply to messages seeking comment.

The case before Judge Tanya Walton Pratt in the District Court for the Southern District of Indiana is Exodus Refugee Immigration, Inc. v. Pence, et al., 1:15-CV-01858. 

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