While Trump has campaigned on an anti-refugee platform, some members of his Republican party continue to welcome new arrivals due to their Christian faith.
A court in the United States will hear arguments against an executive order from President Donald Trump that critics say paves the way for local officials to block refugee resettlement in their communities and could block refugee families from being reunited in January.
Three faith-based organisations that work with the US State Department to resettle refugees are being represented by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), which provides legal advocacy for refugees and displaced people, to challenge the order.
Melissa Keaney, a staff attorney for IRAP, called the order a “back-door attempt to decimate the refugee resettlement program.
“Communities across the United States stand ready to welcome refugees, including Americans who have been waiting years to reunite with family members,” Keaney said in a statement delivered to TRT World. “A single local politician should not be able to veto these displays of basic humanity.”
The order, entitled “Executive Order on Enhancing State and Local Involvement in Refugee Resettlement”, was signed on September 26, 2019. It requires state and local governments to give written consent as to whether they will accept and resettle refugees, giving governors and other officials the option to decline refugee resettlement.
The same month the Trump administration cut refugee acceptance to 18,000 in 2020, the lowest level since Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980. The US admitted 30,000 in 2019.
Refugee resettlement has been under the control of the federal government, whose actions superseded those of state and local governments.
Some states and localities protested refugee resettlement under previous President Barack Obama. Texas Governor Greg Abbott sued to block Syrian refugee resettlement in Texas, the state which accepts the largest amount of refugees in the US.
The suit was thrown out and Abbott withdrew Texas from the refugee resettlement programme. It was a symbolic move, as the federal government has final say in refugee resettlement.
The southern state of Tennessee sued in March 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, claiming the federal government violated the 10th Amendment of the US Constitution, which says the national government only has the powers afforded it in the text, and all others are reserved for the states.
Officials from other states like Texas and North Dakota have expressed dissatisfaction with refugee resettlement.
Trump promised to drastically cut down on refugee acceptance and resettlement during his 2016 presidential campaign. One of his first significant acts as president was to sign an executive order blocking entry to people from seven predominately Muslim nations, called the “Muslim ban” by detractors.
John McCullough, the president and CEO of Church World Service said in a statement delivered to TRT World that for “more than 70 years, CWS has partnered with churches and faith communities across the nation to help refugee families successfully integrate into their communities and rebuild their lives in the United States”
CWS is a cooperative ministry of 37 Christian congregations and communions founded after World War II that promotes peace, according to their website. They joined IRAP and two other faith-based organisations in the lawsuit.
In their view, refugees have become an integral part of the US, and assisting them in an integral of the mission of faith-based organisations.
“There is no justification for allowing local officials to shut down a proven program and block these faith communities from carrying out their mission to welcome the stranger,” McCullough said.
Real world impact
While Trump’s order opens the door to blocking refugees, it remains unclear if it will have any measurable effect. As of January 2, at least 39 governors and 86 mayors had provided consent for the continued resettlement of refugees in their states and communities.
Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee decided in December to continue accepting refugees. When asked about his decision to keep accepting refugees at a luncheon, the Associated Press quoted Lee as citing his Christian faith and he and his wife’s work with refugee groups.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, another Republican, said that refugees will continue to be admitted, pending agreement from local authorities. The three North Dakota counties that hold the state’s largest cities voted to continue accepting refugees.
Burgum cited the economic boon refugees supply in areas with low population growth but available jobs.
Texas Governor Abbot has remained silent on the issue, declining to comment, according to local media. However, refugees have played a significant role in that state’s economy.
Refugees paid about $1.6bn in taxes and accounted for $6bn in household income in 2015, according to a 2019 report by the New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organisation that focuses on immigration policy.
According to the CWS’s McCullough, the benefits of resettling refugees isn’t a matter of debate: “Local support for newly arriving refugees in the communities where we work is already robust and clear”.