The Corner

Politics & Policy

Refugees and Local Control

A “Refugees Welcome” mat at an immigration rally in New York, City, March 3, 2017. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

On Friday, Texas governor Greg Abbott became the first governor to exercise the quasi-veto over refugee resettlement President Trump made available to states and localities in an executive order last fall.

The letter Governor Abbot sent to the State Department wasn’t strictly necessary; states and localities are supposed to opt in, so those that just don’t do anything by the January 21 deadline shouldn’t be sent any refugees. (Strictly speaking, states and localities don’t actually have a veto; the executive order gives the Secretary of State the authority to send refugees anyway, but an affirmative rejection makes that politically very difficult.)

The executive order giving states a greater voice was long overdue. The 1980 Refugee Act, that established the taxpayer-funded resettlement system, required both that states be consulted and that Washington reimburse them for the costs imposed on them by the arrival of refugees (who are eligible, and make extensive use of, welfare from the day they arrive). It will come as no surprise that both these requirements have been abandoned; the “consultation” has become a fiction, with even states that withdraw from the system being sent refugees anyway, and resettlement has become an unfunded mandate because Congress welshed on its promise to reimburse states. (This led the state of Tennessee to sue the feds, claiming that the refugee resettlement program represents commandeering of state resources.)

Texas is the only state so far to have said it won’t opt in; the State Department lists 37 states that have opted in, plus three more whose letters are in the mail, and New York, which will certainly follow suit, for a total of 41 so far. This includes 18 of 26 Republican governors, though two big GOP states, Florida and Georgia, have yet to say what they’re going to do.

How is it that so many Republican governors have opted in when only a few years ago there was such a ruckus about Obama’s plans to admit tens of thousands of Syrian refugees? The taxpayer-funded resettlement contractors attribute it to the influence of churches, with the increasingly left-leaning headquarters staff of the Southern Baptist Convention specifically claiming credit. This narrative sees the opt-in decisions as a rebuke of the president.

That’s wishful thinking on their part. More important are two factors which the president himself is responsible for. First, the number of refugees imported for resettlement is at the lowest level in decades. In December of 2019, only about 1,700 refugees were resettled, as opposed to more than 7,000 in December 2016. Because there are so few new refugees being admitted, it’s a lot less politically risky to agree to take them. Tennessee governor Bill Lee seems to be facing significant pushback, both from the legislature and from Republican activists, but my sense is that other governors figure the low numbers mean the issue won’t have enough salience with enough voters to cause them pain.

The second, and related, factor is the makeup of the refugees. At the end of the Obama administration, plans to resettle ever-larger numbers of Syrian Muslims are what drove much of the furor over resettlement policy. But the percentage of newly resettled refugees who are Muslim is less than half what it was then; of refugees resettled in December 2016, 54 percent were Muslim; last month, only 21 percent of a much smaller number were Muslim. 

So long as refugee numbers are low, and not drawing disproportionately from the Islamic world, even governors with pretty hawkish constituencies may well feel free to accommodate the federal contractors (like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) that lobby for continued resettlement. But the next Democratic administration — whether in one year or five or nine (or 13?) — is guaranteed to massively increase refugee numbers to levels unseen even in the wake of the Communist takeover of Indochina, at least partly out of revenge against Republicans (à la Tony Blair in the U.K.). Until then, though, the president’s push for more local control over refugee resettlement will have some of the wind taken out of its sails by the president’s own reduction in refugee numbers.

Mark Krikorian, a nationally recognized expert on immigration issues, has served as Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) since 1995.

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