As its name implies, the bill would bar the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement from resettling refugees in a state without permission from the governor of that state. It would also create the possibility for states and localities to put into effect laws blocking refugee resettlement. The bill has been cosponsored by five other Texas representatives.
This bill seems to be the legislative answer to a failed attempt by governors from Texas and several other states to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees. The fracas started when it was revealed that two of the men who carried out the November 2015 Paris attack had used fake Syrian passports and may have posed as refugees to enter France. In response to this information 30 U.S. governors called for the White House to stop allowing Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. The resettlement continued and last December Governor Greg Abbott of Texas filed a lawsuit to try to prevent the refugees from coming to Texas. The lawsuit was thrown out by a federal judge this past June. If the “No Resettlement Without Consent Act” is passed, it will give Texas and other states legal authority, which they currently do not have, to prevent refugees from settling there.
On the surface, it seems like this idea may have some merit. Fears of terrorists entering the country as real or fake refugees have been swirling around for some time and this would address those fears. None of the Paris attackers were actually Syrian or refugees and several of them were French or other EU nationals, but it seems that at least two of them did have fake Syrian passports. More recently, John Brennan, Director of the CIA, warned a few weeks ago that ISIS is “probably exploring a variety of means for infiltrating operatives into the West, including refugee flows…” On the other hand, refugee visas are extremely difficult to get, refugees are under intense scrutiny from security agencies during the screening process for entering the U.S., and there are a lot of easier ways for terrorists to enter the country.
Furthermore, this bill would set a truly bizarre legal precedent. With a few exceptions, such as people who are in the legal system, on probation or parole, the U.S. does not restrict the movement or living arrangements of people who are in the country legally. This bill would allow individual governors to unilaterally bar an entire class of people from living in their state. There is nothing even remotely similar to this in U.S. law. And this bill would go a step further and potentially allow for states or even municipalities to enact laws barring any refugees from ever settling there.
This is not only a dramatic change to our legal system but seems frankly un-American. Refugees, displaced persons, and asylum seekers have been a part of this country since the first Europeans settled in North America. The pilgrims were escaping religious persecution; Albert Einstein left Europe just prior to WWII; Madeline Albright’s family had to flee the Czech Republic twice, once because of the Nazis and then again due to the communist takeover; and actress Mila Kunis came here on a religious-refugee visa.
Of course, the U.S. is also not immune to having persons displaced internally. In 2005, tens of thousands of residents of Louisiana had to leave their homes and many of them ended up resettling in Texas and staying there. There haven’t been any reports of problems stemming from the resettlement of the Syrian refugees who are in Texas, but years after Katrina some Texas residents were still complaining of negative impacts on their community from having Katrina victims settled there, which makes it somewhat surprising that the governors of not only Texas but also Louisiana were among those trying to block the Syrian refugees.
The legal definition of refugee does not include people internally displaced by natural disasters, so if the “No Resettlement Without Consent Act” passes it won’t immediately impact internally-displaced Americans, like those who have been left homeless by the most recent storms in Louisiana. But, again, it sets a precedent that could be used in future to allow one state to deny resettlement of people from another state. It will be very interesting to see whether legislators from Louisiana, or elsewhere, are able to see the parallels between our U.S. citizens displaced by weather and Syrian citizens displaced by war.
Perhaps the most urgent problem is that enacting this bill would unjustly and unjustifiably penalize the Syrian refugees themselves. With the quagmire in Syria not getting any better or less complicated, it’s still extremely difficult to tell what, if anything, is the right course of action for the U.S. on the ground or who we should be allied with. But helping people who are not fighting and who are actively trying to escape the war seems like an easy call. The vague possibility that terrorists like ISIS may be looking at possibly exploiting the refugee crisis that they helped create in order to harm the U.S. is not enough of a reason to compromise our values and allow states to start legally discriminating against refugees.
Alexis Chapman is a Political Consultant and Writer specializing in all types of policy analysis, from international law to local ordinances. She’s lived in Australia, Ghana, Vermont, Hawaii, and Texas and has worked for small and large NGOs, state legislature, industry associations, and a variety of publications. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm.