A federal appeals court on Friday unanimously blocked President Donald Trump’s policy allowing state and local government officials to refuse to resettle refugees in their jurisdictions.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said the administration’s policy undermines the national resettlement program created four decades ago by Congress.
Lawmakers deliberately required federal officials to “consult” with state and local leaders, but chose not to require their approval or consent to allow refugees within their borders, the court said.
The new policy, in contrast, allows officials to refuse “for any reason or for no reason at all, and need not provide any explanation for their decision,” according to the 28-page ruling written by Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, who was joined by Judges Robert B. King and Pamela A. Harris.
The panel rejected the government’s argument that it would continue to consult with localities regardless of whether officials had granted consent, an assertion that the court said “strains credulity.”
“The intent of the Order is patently clear, namely, to avoid settling refugees in nonconsenting jurisdictions,” the court said.
In 2019, the Trump administration issued an order that it said was designed to give locals a voice in the federal resettlement process for the first time and promised to resettle refugees only in areas “that are eager and equipped” to receive them.
Three resettlement agencies responsible for sponsoring refugees challenged the new policy. The agencies work with the State Department to welcome adults and children who have fled war and persecution in other countries. They connect refugees to housing, jobs and English classes needed to start their new lives in the United States.
Melanie Nezer, a senior vice president of the Silver Spring-based HIAS, one of the agencies behind the lawsuit, applauded the court’s decision.
“Especially right now, at this moment in history, it is really affirming and validating to see the court affirm the importance of the program,” Nezer said Friday.
“It will take a lot of work to rebuild a system that the Trump administration has broken down over the last four years.”
Trump issued the order after he set the annual national refugee cap for fiscal year 2020 at a historic low of 18,000, down from 110,000 in 2016.
Texas was the first state to publicly refuse to resettle new refugees, with Gov. Greg Abbott, R, saying the state has “carried more than its share.” The vast majority of other governors, however, signed letters saying they would accept refugees.
Nezer said the incoming Biden administration has committed to admitting refugees at levels more in line with historical figures.
A spokesman for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The appeals court upheld a nationwide injunction issued last year by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte, who concluded the requirement gave state and local governments veto power that he said is “arbitrary and capricious as well as inherently susceptible to hidden bias.”
The 4th Circuit agreed. The policy, the court said, would also impose an “extreme burden” on the nonprofit agencies required to obtain consent from local officials. The court warned that the policy would erode community relationships and likely result in the closure of some offices.
“The record is clear that the resettlement agencies were not designed for this role and have been forced to divert enormous resources from their core social service missions to their new lobbying responsibilities,” according to the 4th Circuit.