Federal judge blocks Trump order allowing local governments to refuse refugees

The decision comes less than a week after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said his state would not accept new refugees, making it the first in the nation to do so.
Residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, N.D., on Dec. 9. 2019.
Residents in support of continued refugee resettlement hold signs at a meeting in Bismarck, N.D., on Dec. 9. 2019.James MacPherson / AP

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By Daniella Silva and Laura Strickler

A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked a Trump administration order that allowed state and local governments to refuse the resettling of refugees, finding the policy likely “unlawful.”

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte, of Maryland, ordered the preliminary injunction on the Trump administration’s executive order, which requires state and local governments to affirmatively consent to the receiving of refugees.

The decision comes less than a week after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said his state would not accept new refugees, making it the first in the nation to do so.

Messitte wrote in a 31-page decision that if the order were implemented, “many refugees may find themselves at least in limbo, denied services congressionally intended to help them effectively integrate into new homes.”

“Lest there be any doubt, giving State and Local Governments the power to consent to the resettlement of refugees — which is to say veto power to determine whether refugees will be received in their midst — flies in the face of clear Congressional intent,” he wrote.

Messitte wore that the court was persuaded that the plaintiffs in the case would likely be able to demonstrate the order was “arbitrary and capricious” as well as “inherently susceptible to hidden bias.”

The White House blasted the decision in a statement Wednesday as "preposterous" and an example of district courts "run amok."

"Another lawless district court has asserted its own preferred immigration policy in place of the laws of the United States," the statement said "And, in so doing, robbed millions of American citizens of their voice and their say in a vital issue directly affecting their communities."

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The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which filed a challenge to the order in November along with two other refugee resettlement agencies, praised the judge’s decision.

"We're grateful to Judge Messitte for upholding the rule of law and ensuring that the United States remains a place of welcome for the world's most vulnerable," Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the refugee service, said in a statement.

"This injunction provides critical relief," she said. "Those who have been waiting for years to reunite with their families and friends will no longer have to choose between their loved ones and the resettlement services that are so critical in their first months as new Americans."

Last week, Abbott wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Texas “cannot consent to initial refugee resettlement” for fiscal year 2020.

Since fiscal year 2010, “more refugees have been received in Texas than in any other state,” he wrote.

The Department of Justice declined to comment and the Texas governor's office did not immediately respond to request for comment on the judge's decision.

Governors in 42 other states have said they will consent to allow more refugees, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

On Monday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, defended his decision to continue accepting refugees to a legislative committee after he was questioned by fellow GOP lawmakers.

“Each of you are leaders in your community. You've got a choice to make: You can create fear or you can help resolve fear," Hutchinson told lawmakers, according to The Associated Press. “I challenge you to help resolve fear, have the facts, and to talk about those."

Republican state Sen. Trent Garner, who had requested the meeting with the governor, told NBC News on Wednesday he was "disappointed" in the judge's decision.

"I am disappointed that a federal judge has taken this decision out of the hands of the citizens of Arkansas," he said in an email. "I appreciate President Trump’s leadership in giving local control back to the people so they could have a voice in this process. I hope that this will be overturned on appeal."

In September, Trump announced the U.S. would receive only 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020, a historic low since the program began in 1980.

The president also ordered that refugees would be resettled in jurisdictions where state and local governments consented to receive them.

“State and local governments are best positioned to know the resources and capacities they may or may not have available to devote to sustainable resettlement, which maximizes the likelihood refugees placed in the area will become self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance,” Trump said in the executive order.