Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut on Wednesday personally welcomed a refugee family from Syria who had been diverted from Indianapolis to New Haven.
Meanwhile in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, sent a letter to President Obama saying he was directing his state’s Department of Human Services not to participate in the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
On Wednesday, the fate of Syrian refugees in the United States fully erupted into a fight over states’ rights, even though governors and other local officials hold no legal role in the federal program that was authorized by the 1980 Refugee Act.
More than 30 governors have come out in recent days to say that their states will not accept refugees from Syria, even as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Governor Malloy, both Democrats, remained staunch in their commitment to take refugees.
Graphic | Paris Attacks Intensify Debate Over How Many Syrian Refugees to Allow Into the U.S. A growing number of governors said they oppose the entry of Syrian refugees into their states.
“It is a federal program,” Mr. Malloy said in an interview, adding he was appalled at the behavior of some of his fellow governors. “But they are not doing this for legal purposes. One guy, one governor said something on Sunday and within a matter of a day, governors were trying to beat one another to be as small as possible.”
A State Department spokeswoman said that it “has no plans to curtail resettlement in any of the 180 communities that have committed to welcoming refugees” despite what state leaders were saying.
For immigration lawyers and constitutional scholars, governors’ threats to bar Syrian refugees from their states and to cut them off from state resources, as the Republican governor of Indiana suggested, struck them as unconstitutional.
“The Supreme Court for more than 100 years has been very clear that on matters of immigration the nation has to speak with a single voice,” said Stephen Legomsky, a former general counsel for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services who is currently a professor at Washington University School of Law. “It shouldn’t be up to one state to decide what U.S. foreign policy may be.”
Were state governments to withhold services only to Syrian refugees who received federal money, he said, that would seem to violate the 14th Amendment ensuring equal protection of the law.
Jennifer Sime, the vice president of United States programs for the International Rescue Committee, which operates an office in Elizabeth, N.J., said the organization would continue to resettle refugees, including Syrians, in New Jersey and across the country. The two other organizations resettling refugees in New Jersey — Church World Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops — said they would do the same.
“It is a federal program and so we are following the program guidelines,” Ms. Sime said, adding that Mr. Christie’s directive was “not really grounded in the reality of what we’re doing or what we have been doing in the state of New Jersey.”
Mr. Christie’s office declined to comment.
Governors were not the only ones calling for Syrian refugees to be banned. The mayor of Roanoke, Va., David Bowers, a Democrat, asked the aid agencies to suspend resettling Syrians in his city. According to The Associated Press, Mayor Bowers cited Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II as a way to contain a population that posed a threat to the country.
In Tennessee, a Republican lawmaker, Glen Casada, said that the National Guard should round up Syrian refugees who have recently settled in the state and stop any more Syrian refugees from entering, according to The Tennessean.
The International Rescue Committee confirmed another case of a refugee family who had been diverted because they had been scheduled to go to a state whose governor did not want Syrians to arrive. The group decided to send a Syrian family scheduled to arrive this week in Wichita, Kan., to Virginia, instead. The Rescue Committee declined to name the new host city because of privacy issues.
There were only six cases of Syrian refugee families in the weekly meeting involving the nine national aid organizations in contract with the State Department who decide where refugees will be placed.
“I think people are just really frustrated right now,” said Mia Witte, the project coordinator for pre-arrival services at Church World Service, who was in the meeting. “We’re just waiting, and for the past three weeks now we haven’t seen many Syrian cases.” She added, “We’ve heard of cases where people are being pulled off flights overseas for security checks.”
On Wednesday, the young Syrian family, with a 4-year-old son, arrived in New Haven.
“He is a lovely man, who was in retail, as we say here,” Mr. Malloy said. “His wife was very pleasant, with a beautiful smile. Their son shook hands with me and made eye contact. I told him that’s a good handshake.”
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