Syrian Refugee Crisis

The series of coordinated terror attacks on Paris last month not only claimed the lives of 130 innocent citizens, but may have also seriously hurt the chances of Syrian refugees attempting to resettle in the United States.

Following the revelation that at least one of the perpetrators of the November 13 terror attacks entered Europe under false identity as a Syrian refugee seeking asylum, more than half of our nation’s governors have refused to accept Syrian refugees in their states, including Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.


Haslam, a Republican, issued a statement via his official Facebook page on November 16 saying that he had asked the federal government to stop placing Syrian refugees in Tennessee. He joins 30 other state governors, all but one of them Republicans, who have stated their intention to refuse Syrian refugees.

Haslam is primarily concerned with the security screening process, known as the vetting process, that refugees go through before being allowed entrance to the U.S. “Today I’m asking the federal government to suspend placements in Tennessee until states can become more of a partner in the vetting process,” he said November 16.

Several state officials have spoken out in support of the Governor, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, both of whom are Republicans.

The screening for Syrian refugees is already the most intense vetting process of any group that enters the country, according to a TIME Politics article. Although all refugees entering the U.S. undergo a thorough screening process, refugees arriving from Syria are subject to additional layers of scrutiny that the President feels will keep American citizens safe.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), the United States currently has an “open-ended resettlement” commitment for Syrian refugees. The UNCHR has so far submitted 22,427 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for consideration, of which over 1,500 have been accepted since 2011. President Obama has committed to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the U.S. in 2016 via the Refugee Resettlement Program.

Most of the political right’s pushback to Syrian refugee resettlement has been on the basis of states rights. “While screening, acceptance and placement is legally under the authority of the federal government, they have said in the past they would be open to cooperating with receiving states,” said Governor Haslam.

But according to Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., states can’t actually object to refugee resettlement because the constitutional authority to allow or disallow entrance to the U.S. rests with the federal government.

A state can, however, make the process much more troublesome. “A state can't say it is legally objecting, but it can refuse to cooperate, which makes thing much more difficult,” says Vladeck.

Tennessee State Attorney General Herbert Slatery offered a legal opinion on November 30 in which he argued that refusing to accept refugees “would violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”

Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claims that the federal government has been given the authority to relocate refugees as it sees fit. “When push comes to shove, the federal government has both the plenary power and the power of the 1980 Refugee Act to place refugees anywhere in the country.”

As of December 5, however, Haslam had not yet offered an official constitutional challenge to Syrian refugee resettlement. He hasn’t been without opportunity: the Thomas More Law Center is preparing to file a constitutional legal challenge to the Refugee Resettlement Program and only needs a state governor to sign on as plaintiff.

When asked if he will agree to be the plaintiff in the challenge, a spokesperson for the governor declined to comment. “It is typically the Attorney General who brings a legal action on behalf of the state,” the spokesperson said.

Some conservatives aren’t happy about Haslam’s refusal. “This is yet another example of Governor Haslam, along with so many of our state’s governors, who believe their role is that of a serf in subject to the federal government,” said former Tennessee State Representative Joe Carr (R-Lascassas). “The issue of refugee resettlement illustrates the need for constitutional conservatives to elect governors who understand, believe and will fight on behalf of their state’s sovereignty.”

It’s just as well, however: Texas’ ongoing legal challenge to the Refugee Resettlement Program won’t stop three Syrian refugee families from arriving in the state for resettlement this week. TIME reports that the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has rescinded “an immediate order blocking the arrival of all new Syrian refugees” but will continue its current lawsuit demanding more detailed information on refugees to be resettled in the state.