WashU Expert: American governors have little power to block Syrian refugees

In the wake of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, at least two dozen American governors have expressed concern over allowing Syrian refugees to relocate in their states. Some have indicated they will refuse to allow refugees into their territories.

Steve Legomsky
Steve Legomsky

While state governments often do play a small role in helping to resettle refugees, the governors don’t have much choice in this case, said immigration expert Stephen H. Legomsky, JD, DPhil, the John S. Lehmann University Professor Emeritus at the School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The one thing I feel very comfortable saying is there is absolutely no constitutional power for a state to exclude anyone from its territories,” Legomsky told USA Today.

Legomsky is former chief counsel of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agency that implements the overseas refugee program, and more recently senior counsel to the Secretary of Homeland Security on immigration issues.

“The states have no power whatsoever to restrict travel into their territories by anyone. That law has been clear for more than 100 years,” Legomsky told the Huffington Post. “The Supreme Court has long been insistent that we can’t have 50 different sets of immigration laws operating at the same time.”

States do have a role in the refugee resettlement process, Legomsky acknowledged. Many states have voluntarily entered into contracts with the federal government, he said, where the states receive federal resettlement funds and pass them through to private nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies.

“But even with those contracts,” Legomsky said, “any state that attempts to single out Syrian refugees for special adverse treatment can expect strong constitutional challenges.”

He believes such discrimination would likely violate both equal protection and the federal preemption of immigration and refugee regulation.

“Perhaps more important than what can legally be done is what should be done,” Legomsky said. “One person, out of the more than 1 million refugees who have recently fled to Europe, might have obtained a fake Syrian passport and then engaged in a terrorist act. That is no reason to turn our backs on an entire population of Syrian men, women and children who are desperately trying to escape the cruelest barbarities imaginable.”

While no system can be 100 percent foolproof, Legomsky said, all who apply for admission to the United States as refugees are intensely scrutinized.

“They are personally interviewed and thorough background checks are performed by Homeland Security and the FBI,” Legomsky said. “No competent terrorist would choose the U.S. refugee process as a preferred strategy for gaining entry into the U.S.”

Editor’s note: Members of the media interested in interviewing Legomsky can reach him by email at legomsky@wustl.edu or by phone at 314-935-6469 (office) or 314-779-4713 (cell).

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