US backs Syrian refugees against Pence at 7th Circuit

The Department of Justice is urging the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to affirm an Indianapolis district court judge’s ruling that blocked Gov. Mike Pence’s directive to suspend federal aid to Syrian refugees resettled in Indiana.

“The United States is filing this amicus brief in support of the federal government’s interest in ensuring that the refugee program is operated free of discrimination and, more generally, that recipients of federal funds do not engage in prohibited discrimination,” the department wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Indiana ruled in March that Pence’s directive “clearly discriminates”  against refugees from the war-torn country. Pratt also granted a preliminary injunction blocking suspension of aid, ruling plaintiff Exodus Refugee Immigration was likely to prevail on the merits of the suit.  She also wrote in her order that withholding federal grant money from the aid group “in no way furthers the state's asserted interest in the safety of Indiana residents.”

Exodus sued Pence in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The suit claimed Pence’s directive last year to suspend certain federal aid for Syrian refugees in the wake of the November terror attacks in Paris was discriminatory and that he was exempted by federal law from taking such actions. Pence in court filings raised doubts about the screening process for refugees and argued as governor he was responsible for the safety of residents. The Justice Department also filed a brief in support of Exodus before the District Court.

Pence appealed Pratt’s ruling, but failed to persuade the judge to lift the injunction. At the 7th Circuit, the state argues it has legitimate public safety concerns in seeking temporary and partial suspension of grant payments to Exodus. It also says the federal government has not provided Indiana with sufficient information about the vetting process used to screen war refugees from Syria before Exodus relocated them to Indiana.

The DOJ argues Pence’s actions violate the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Refugee Act of 1980. It says Indiana’s participation in the federal Refugee Social Services Program prohibit interference with funds meant to assist resettlement of vetted refugees. “The United States supports the district court’s conclusion that Indiana has no authority to refuse assistance to refugees based on their country of origin,” the brief says.

“(A) blanket refusal to provide services to Syrian refugees, including refugees who already reside in Indiana, is by no means narrowly tailored to advance the State’s asserted purpose,” the federal government argues. “The federal government has exclusive authority to determine which refugees will be admitted to the United States, and States have no authority to discriminate against those refugees based on their country of origin.”

Indiana is one of several states whose governors issued similar policy statements aiming to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris attacks, but Pratt’s ruling was the first addressing such court challenges. Texas has sued the federal government and has filed an amicus brief in support of Indiana in its appeal against Exodus.

“The resettlement of refugees is, by design, to be a cooperative process, involving significant information sharing,” Texas argues in its brief filed last month. “The district court’s order … is devoid of both historical context and an understanding of the rights the States have in resettlement. … (L)ying at the heart of the extant dispute is the federal government’s unwillingness to comply with the consultation and collaboration requirements of the Refugee Act.”

Meanwhile, the American Jewish Conference also has filed an amicus brief in this case in support of affirming Pratt’s ruling. The AJC argues Pence’s action directly conflicts with federal law.

Adam Lurie of the Washington law firm Linklaters LLP is among the drafters of the group’s brief. He said in a statement, “Especially given the challenges that Jewish refugees have historically faced, AJC has long championed fair U.S. immigration and refugee policies. AJC is therefore proud to stand with these Syrian refugees who the federal government has screened and found do not pose a security threat, and argues in its amicus brief that Indiana’s attempt to exclude only Syrian – but no other — refugees violates the U.S. Constitution.’” 

Briefing in the case is scheduled to continue until at least mid-June.

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