The 29 U.S. governors who are refusing to take in any of the 10,000 Syrian refugees President Barack Obama plans to resettle in America by 2017 would technically violate federal laws if they followed through on their threat. But it might be easier for the White House to simply bypass the state obstructionists and allow Syrians who are fleeing their country’s civil war to live where they’re welcome.
The governors — all but one are Republican — who are balking against new Syrian residents are doing so, they say, out of safety concerns after last week’s Paris attack. At least one of the assailants in the rampage that killed almost 130 posed as a refugee to enter Europe.
A senior administration official told reporters Tuesday that the White House wants to send Syrian refugees to places where there’s community support.
“We don’t want to send refugees anywhere where they will not be welcomed,” said the administration official, who briefed reporters on condition of not being identified. “Our nation can welcome refugees desperately seeking safety and maintain our own security. We can and must do both.”
The official added that the White House would try to clarify any misunderstandings about the program, and that the vetting process for Syrians arriving on U.S. shores is very vigorous.
According to American University law professor Stephen I. Vladeck, sending Syrians to states where they’re wanted is probably the best strategy. He said while governors unwilling to resettle refugees can’t legally refuse them, they could make life difficult for the Obama administration.
“The reality is, the way federal law is structured, there is a fair amount of room for states to be passive-aggressive” toward refugees, Vladeck told Foreign Policy. “They just can’t be aggressive.”
For instance, Vladeck said state legislatures could cut funding to programs that help refugees adjust to living in their state. They could also simply ignore White House requests to take in Syrians.
“I don’t think we’re at a point where the state obstructionism is a threat to the whole program,” Vladeck said. “It’s just going to cause headaches that the federal government will not try to solve, but try to avoid.”
But Vladeck warned there’s a downside to this strategy. “The government could be worried about setting a precedent where there are sanctuary states and non-sanctuary states,” he said.
This means, in the future, states could repeat what some are doing now: Denying refugees based on where they’re coming from.
This post has been updated to reflect the growing number of states that have said no to Syrian refugees.
Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images