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More US States Welcome Refugees Under New Trump Rule


FILE - Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks with reporters at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas, June 5, 2019.
FILE - Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly speaks with reporters at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas, June 5, 2019.

Kansas is the latest U.S. state to commit to resettling refugees under a new Trump administration rule that requires cities and states to opt in to the government's refugee program.

"I not only consent to the initial refugee resettlement in Kansas as per the terms of the Executive Order, I also welcome them into our state," Democratic Governor Laura Kelly wrote to President Donald Trump in the letter, made public Wednesday.

With the letter, Kelly joins a small bipartisan list of governors to quickly respond to the new rule, issued in September.

Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington state — headed by Democratic governors — and New Hampshire, North Dakota and Utah — led by Republicans — previously submitted similar letters to U.S. officials.

Prior to the Sept. 26 executive order, refugees were either reunited with family or assigned a destination based on a quarterly meeting near Washington, D.C., between government officials and the non-profit organizations that handle resettlement.

They generally placed refugees in communities around the country where the non-profits have offices and staff to help refugees, especially during their first year in the U.S.

While there have been some cities and states, like Tennessee, that in previous years attempted to block refugees, such cases are rare. Resettlement had occurred in every U.S. state, territory, and the District of Columbia since 2003, according to U.S. State Department arrival records.

By requiring consent, the Trump administration is allowing states and localities to bar refugee resettlement in their areas.

"State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement, which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance. Some States and localities, however, have viewed existing consultation as insufficient," Trump stated in the executive order.

Lawsuit filed

Three of the leading refugee agencies sued the Trump administration last month, arguing the executive order violates federal law and that decisions on refugee placement should continue to be made at the federal level.

Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS, one of the groups leading the lawsuit, says that allowing states or cities to reject or take in refugees will result in a geographical patchwork not dissimilar to America's racially segregated past.

"It was not that long ago that Jews and African-Americans were banned from living in certain neighborhoods and towns. We fought to end that discrimination and humiliation. Now the Trump Administration has issued an executive order which allows states and localities to ban resettled refugees? We won't tolerate such intolerance," Hetfield said.

Despite the consent requirement, state and local governments will not be able to choose which refugees it wants to accept, or to exclude certain groups.

"The consent may not be conditioned on acceptance of certain refugees or on any other factor, such as refugees' race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin," according to a State Department document issued in November.

Upcoming changes

The new rules will affect resettlement beginning June 1, 2020, according to an emailed statement from an agency spokesperson.

Written consent will be required from the state governor's office and the chief executive officer of the county or county equivalent for each jurisdiction where refugees will be resettled, the spokesperson added.

Any cut-off date for the consent letters is unknown. The State Department did not respond to a request for clarification Thursday.

Most of the top states for resettlement, like California, Florida, and Texas, have not made their intent public. Localities, like the major Texas city of Fort Worth, have announced their willingness to accept refugees, although such statements could be preempted by the determinations of state governors.

Some states, like Idaho, say they are still debating the issue.

The State Department initially said it would post the consent letters received to its website, but has been slow to do so. VOA compiled its list of states and localities from media reports and state government news releases.

The new requirements come amid dramatic changes to the U.S. refugee program, notably the record-low admissions limit for Fiscal Year 2020, set by Trump at 18,000 — a sharp decrease from the 110,000-refugee ceiling established during the last year of President Barack Obama's tenure.

"I remain troubled by this Administration's deep cuts to refugee resettlement and disappointed that my call for a considerably higher number of refugees went unanswered," Washington Governor Jay Inslee wrote in his state's consent letter to U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo in early November, adding that he has "significant concerns" about the mandate for written consent.

VOA Immigration Reporter Aline Barros contributed to this report.