Opinion: The latest bad immigration idea from the White House? Letting local officials refuse refugees

The White House reportedly is considering an executive action that would allow local and state officials to refuse to accept resettled refugees.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

There are two things the nation can be sure of 31 months into the Trump administration. First, President Trump’s inability to tell the truth and stick to it, as well as his predilection to unilaterally tear up international agreements, have turned the U.S. government into an entity whose word cannot be trusted. Second, if there is a bad idea, this administration will embrace it.

On the latter, NBC News reports that the administration is contemplating an executive action that would allow states and local government to refuse to resettle refugees in their jurisdictions, with some exceptions, such as reunifying families when members have already settled there.

Of course, it’s the first truism that suggests we need not take this report too seriously, at least for now. Especially if another rumored policy comes to fruition — that the administration wants to reduce the number of refugees it will resettle to near zero. No one to resettle? No need for xenophobic local and state officials to close their own doors.

But if this is under serious consideration by Trump’s advisors, it would be yet another upending of a norm, and a decentralization of federal responsibility.


Some background: Refugees are people who for various reasons — such as persecution or statelessness — cannot return to their home countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees determines the eligibility of refugees seeking settlement by vetting their applications and their backgrounds, then makes referrals to host countries to take them in. Historically, the U.S. has taken in more of the designated refugees than any other country, but only after conducting its own background checks and vetting process.

Once the U.S. government agrees to accept refugees, they are resettled into local communities with the help of a network of nine nonprofit agencies scattered across nearly every state in the nation. As the State Department notes on its website, “many refugees have family or close friends already in the United States, and resettlement agencies make every effort to reunite them. Others are placed where they have the best opportunity for success through employment with the assistance of strong community services.”

The key here is the recognition that refugees from different nations and with specific skill sets will do better in different American environments. It’s common sense to place them — at least initially — in a community where they will have a support network, and the best opportunity to succeed.

But letting local and state officials say, “Nope, not here,” undercuts the system by potentially limiting resettlements to states with a more open and welcoming political mind set. And this is no hypothetical argument; after the 2015 Islamic State-connected terror attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, 31 governors, all but one of them Republicans, vowed to refuse to accept Syrian refugees.

At the time, that was a toothless threat, since all they could do is withhold state aid to the refugees. But if the policy under consideration goes into effect and survives the inevitable legal challenge, that could change.

Beyond the abdication of federal authority, the order Trump is reportedly contemplating raises thorny questions about how it would be implemented, beginning with how does the government intend to keep refugees from moving to a state that doesn’t want them?

One of the hallmarks of a free society is the freedom of movement. How would any level of government stop someone from moving? Would it really try to tell people living in this country where they can and can’t live?

This is a ludicrous idea hatched, no doubt, in the fever-brains of Trump’s cabal of nationalists for whom no idea is too far-fetched so long as it keeps people from other countries from seeking to move to the U.S. — despite a national history and a library of laws allowing that to happen.

So of course, watch for the memo soon.