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US Judge: States Cannot Block Refugee Arrivals

In this Nov. 5, 2019, photo, a migrant walks through a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. The camp is an outgrowth of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program.

A federal judge in Maryland said U.S. states and localities cannot opt out of receiving refugees for now, the latest move in a court case challenging a Trump administration order that reversed decades of standing practice that guided the arrivals of millions of displaced people.

The temporary stop comes nearly four months after the government created a new requirement that cities and states had to consent in writing to participate in the refugee program.

Until then, federal, state and local officials, along with the nonprofit, nongovernmental agencies that carry out refugee resettlement in the U.S., worked in coordination with each other — but without any mandate for written consent.

"Consultation between and among the state and local governments and the resettlement agencies has, from all reports, worked quite smoothly" since 1986, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte wrote in the opinion released Wednesday morning. "In searching for a rational basis justifying the order ... one is left to wonder exactly what the rationale is for doing away entirely with a process that has worked so successfully for so long. And why now?"

'Administration was wrong'

Refugee advocates welcomed the temporary stop to the new process.

Mark J. Hetfield, president of HIAS, a refugee advocacy organization leading the lawsuit, said Messitte’s decision “shows the country how this administration was wrong" to attempt a state-by-state refugee ban.

To date, the effects of the September order from President Donald Trump were limited; most states — about 40 governors, according to a VOA review of media reports and official documents — have officially agreed to allow refugees to be placed in their communities upon first arriving to the U.S.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, photo, immigrants waiting for their U.S. court dates live in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, cooks dinner as the sun sets.
In this Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019, photo, immigrants waiting for their U.S. court dates live in a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, cooks dinner as the sun sets.

Texas — one of the major destinations for newly arrived refugees — is thus far the only state to opt out of the program.

But the process is not as clear-cut as simply blocking all refugee admissions.

Refugees with immediate family members in a state will still be allowed to move there upon first arriving in the U.S., but details on how that reunification will happen are not clear, as Texas became the first state last week to pull out of the federal resettlement program.

Before Wednesday’s injunction, Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, said the state “will still be seeing refugees coming. ... It just will look different.”

'Preposterous' ruling

Federal officials this week told VOA they were working on a “mechanism” to handle the repercussions of that state’s withdrawal from the program. Details about what the process will look like are not clear. Trump’s order was set to take effect on June 1, however, giving officials more time to work through the changes.

Lawyers for the U.S. government are expected to contest Wednesday’s decision.

The White House said it was reviewing its options and called the judge's ruling "preposterous." A White House statement said millions of Americans have been robbed of having a say in an issue affecting their own communities.