Why the US Cannot Legally Refuse Syrian Refugees

Ever since the terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month, Syrian refugees have been a hotly debated issue. In the U.S., the debate is as heated as anywhere else. On one side, Republican congressman and governors are largely speaking out against refugees, attempting to refuse refugees in their constituencies. On the other side there is President Obama, who has come out clearly in favor of accepting refugees.

Interestingly enough, while many state governors say that they don’t want refugees in their state, there are many mayors across the country (especially in states where a governor has spoken out against refugees) that claims that they would love to accept refugees.

Legality of refusing refugees

Unfortunately for the majority of disgruntled U.S. governors, there are no lawful means of opposing or admitting refugees from the state level. Hines v. Davidowitz case states “the supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution.” States do not get to overrule the federal government on such matters.

The Refugee Act of 1980 also allows President Obama to accept refugees into the country, especially in “unforeseen emergency refugee situations” such as the Syrian refugee crisis.

The rationale behind these decisions, among many reasons, is that state government shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions that would impact the entire nation and potentially anger another nation. Actions like these can lead to war, and that power should not fall to the states.

How refugees come in

Refugees must first apply for refugee status through the UNHCR, the international body that protects and assists refugees. They determine the merits of refugee status based on parameters from the 1951 Refugee Convention.

After a referral from the UNHCR, the application is processed by the Resettlement Support Center, a federally funded center that gathers information about the refugee in question for an intensive screening process. This screening process includes an interview, a medical evaluation, and an interagency security screening aimed to weed out refugees who pose a threat to the U.S.

Applications generally take 18 to 24 months to process. Syrian applications specifically can take longer because of the fear of security risks associated with allowing them to enter the country.