Can State Governors Stop Syrian Resettlement in Their State?

The short answer is no, and here’s why:

As noted in several articles that have recently come out (this one from the NYTimes, and this one from the Detroit news where I’m quoted), refugee resettlement in the United States is managed by the federal government. Specifically, the Department of State determines which refugees will be resettled in the U.S. Often these are people that have already been determined to be refugees – people who have fled their country and cannot return because their government is unable or unwilling to protect them from persecution due to their race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. That process is called “status determination” and often groups like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) determines refugee status. Refugees apply to be resettled to a particular country, and those requesting resettlement in the U.S. are further vetted by the State Department.

Not all refugees get resettled. UNHCR estimates that less than 1% of refugees worldwide ever get resettled. Usually it is people who are unsafe in the country of first asylum (for example, Syrians who have fled to Iraq), represent a group of particular national interest (like Vietnamese or Iraqis who were targeted for violence because they assisted the U.S. military in their respective countries), or some other situation that makes resettlement in a third country the only viable way to protect them. And only some of those that are chosen for resettlement will come to the U.S., always after a lengthy security process that involves multiple interviews and sometimes DNA tests (which the refugees have to pay for themselves). The security process itself takes on average 18-24 months, but the time between leaving one’s country and finally coming to the U.S. takes much longer. In the most recent Iraqi resettlement to the U.S., colleagues involved in processing refugees told me that it generally took between 2-7 years to finally bring an Iraqi refugee into the U.S.

Once a refugee (and his/her immediate family of a spouse and dependent children) are approved for resettlement, the Office of Refugee Resettlement works with local NGOs (usually through their national organizations, called VOLAGS – short for voluntary agencies) to determine where refugees are resettled. Criteria such as the location of family members already in the U.S. who can assist the refugees, affordable housing stock so that refugees can afford the rent, and available jobs (usually requiring little skill, as even highly educated refugees need to find work as quickly as possible and don’t have time to get U.S.-based certification or hone their English skills) are considered in determining where refugees go. The capacity of the NGO to provide the immediate reception and placement services (the core resettlement program) is also part of that equation.

Governors have little to do with it.

But that does not mean that the position that state governors take regarding Syrian refugee resettlement is meaningless. According to a hot-off-the-presses CNN report, more than half of U.S. governors have either stated that they will not resettle refugees into their states, or they want resettlement halted until security processes are reviewed. Given that those processes already went through a rigorous audit and bolstering following 9/11, I am not sure what more can be done to make the process more secure. Maybe they’ll suggest micro-chipping refugees? I shouldn’t give them any ideas…

Bottom line is that state governors cannot stop resettlement through executive declaration. But what they are doing is putting rhetorical fuel on the already burning Islamophobic and nativist fires around the country. In making baseless connections between Syrian refugees and the Paris attackers, they are making it harder for Syrian refugees (or anyone who looks Muslim, or foreign, or just brown-skinned) to be included as full members of U.S. society. Rather, they are encouraging the exclusion of such people. Exactly what ISIS* wants.


* – for the purposes of clarity, I use the common moniker for the so-called “Islamic State.” However, they are neither a state nor a reasonable representation of Islam, whatever they may claim. I actually prefer the term “Daesh” – see this article for an explanation as to why.

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