States that refuse to help resettle Syrian refugees are guilty of illegal discrimination, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, delivering a judicial rebuke to GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, who, as Indiana’s governor, had tried to stop Syrians from being shipped into his state.
Judge Richard Posner, writing for the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, said there’s no evidence that Syrians are more dangerous than other refugees, and he said even if they are, allowing Indiana to refuse to resettle them would only foist the problem onto neighboring states.
“Federal law does not allow a governor to deport to other states immigrants he deems dangerous,” Judge Posner wrote.
He said if Mr. Pence has worries, the governor should report his fears to federal bureaucrats for redress.
The court said Indiana agencies don’t have to cooperate with the federal government, but the state can’t ban Syrian refugees, nor can it order nonprofit groups to stop helping the resettlement efforts.
A number of states balked last year when President Obama announced he wanted to accept some 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016. The administration blew past that goal, with a final tally of 12,587 Syrians as of Friday, which marked the last day of the fiscal year.
Mr. Obama hasn’t set a Syrian target for 2017, but at the pace of the last few months, the U.S. could process as many as 30,000. Still, the year got off to a slow start with just 17 refugees in the first few days: a family of nine that was resettled in New York and a family of eight settled in Massachusetts.
Mr. Pence, a first-term governor, had sought to beg out of the Syrian refugee program in 2015. He issued an order directing that his state refuse to cooperate with federal resettlement. Indiana also pressured local nonprofits who assist in resettlement to refuse Syrians.
But the appeals court rejected that, saying it amounted to singling out a nationality, which violates equal protection guarantees in the Constitution.
Judge Posner took several swipes at Mr. Pence, whose political profile has risen since he was tapped for the GOP ticket this year.
The judge said there’s no evidence that Indiana is a hot destination for Syrian refugees, and said other states that had taken a firm stand against resettlement have since relaxed their opposition.
Indiana took in 42 families, for a total of 174 Syrian refugees, in fiscal year 2016.
Kara Brooks, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pence, said they acted out of concern for the safety of their residents, and said the Obama administration itself has acknowledged the potential for danger.
“The state of Indiana took decisive action last year to suspend resettlement of Syrian refugees after the terrorist attack in Paris and because the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged security gaps with regard to screening refugees from Syria,” Ms. Brooks said.
Immigrant rights and civil liberties groups cheered the judge’s decision, saying it reaffirms the U.S. commitment to refugees.
Mr. Obama has set a goal for resettling 110,000 refugees total in 2017 — up from 85,000 the previous year and 70,000 in 2015.
Judge Posner, who has earned a reputation as a crusading jurist, said he has discovered no evidence in the public record of any Syrian refugees who have been arrested or prosecuted for terrorist acts in the U.S.
The judge did not address the case of Younis Al-Jayab, charged in January after authorities said he traveled to Syria and fought with Ansar al-Islam. Mr. Al-Jayab was an Iraqi, but he was approved as a refugee while living in Syria in 2012.
U.S. immigration officials insist their system is good, and say their officers are trained to spot fraudulent applications. Some 7 percent of applicants from Syria have had their refugee requests rejected.
But FBI Director James B. Comey last week reiterated his caution that the U.S. doesn’t have access to records from Syria, so there may be red flags officials are missing.
“I can’t query what’s not in our holdings,” he told Congress.