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ACLU sues Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, demands state accept Syrian refugees

A Syrian refugee embraces his son after their overcrowded raft landed at a rocky beach in the Greek island of Lesbos on Nov. 19. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

First came the war, with its bullets and bombs, so the young Syrian couple fled across the border into Jordan and became refugees.

Then came four long, lean years of limbo as they struggled to find a new home for themselves and their baby boy.

Finally, the family of three received permission to immigrate to the United States. Their new home would be a place called Indiana, they were told. They did their research on the Midwestern state, even making friends with other refugees headed that way. With its motto of “The Crossroads of America,” Indiana seemed a welcoming place.

Until it officially wasn’t.

“In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, effective immediately, I am directing all state agencies to suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved,” Gov. Mike Pence (R) announced on Nov. 16.

“Why did they bring us if they didn’t want us?” the father of the Syrian family told the New York Times.

“We felt rejected,” he added. “We were depressed. How could that be the freedoms that we hear about?”

Pence was joined by more than 25 other governors — all Republican expect for one — in barring Syrian refugees from their states. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump called accepting Syrian asylum seekers “insane.” President Obama, meanwhile, shot back on Twitter that “Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That’s not who we are. And it’s not what we’re going to do.”

On Monday, the political debate deepened when the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was suing Pence for his decision.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, the nonprofit that had planned to help the Syrian family of three resettle in Indiana, the ACLU claimed that Pence’s decision to bar Syrian refugees violated the Constitution, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the federal government’s exclusive authority over immigration.

“This lawsuit is calling out Governor Pence on his unconstitutional bluff,” Judy Rabinovitz, deputy legal director of the ACLU’s immigrants’ rights project, said in a news release. “He does not have the power to pick and choose between which lawfully admitted refugees he is willing to accept. Singling out Syrian refugees for exclusion from Indiana is not only ethically wrong, it is unconstitutional. Period.”

Pence had not commented on the lawsuit as of early Tuesday morning, however, he defended his decision to bar Syrian refugees from Indiana in a Nov. 19 op-ed.

Citing “gaps” in past screening of refugees and reports that at least one of the gunmen involved in the Nov. 13 attack on Paris “exploited the European Union’s refugee system to gain entrance to France,” Pence wrote he was suspending “the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana until the federal government implements proper security measures.”

“Indiana and the United States must continue to serve as a safe harbor for refugees from around the world,” he also wrote in the op-ed. “However, unless and until the federal government addresses the security gaps acknowledged by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security with regard to refugees from Syria, as governor I will continue to put the safety and security of Hoosiers first.”

For the Syrian family of three that arrived to New York City’s Kennedy International Airport the day after the governor’s announcement, Pence’s decision was the latest in a long line of setbacks. Luckily, this one wouldn’t last four years.

Instead, within hours they were offered sanctuary in nearby Connecticut, where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) greeted them.

But for Exodus Refugee Immigration, the problems were only beginning. According to the nonprofit’s lawsuit, Exodus was already expecting 19 other Syrian refugees in Indiana “in the next few weeks or months.”

Unlike the family of three, these 19 refugees will resettle in Indiana, the lawsuit warns.

“Exodus Refugee Immigration has been notified that these families will be placed with Exodus Refugee Immigration for resettlement in Indiana despite the Governor’s order that State agencies suspend assistance to these refugees,” the suit says.

As the lawsuit notes, the United States Constitution gives the federal government power over immigration. That means that Pence can order state agencies not to assist the refugees by withholding assistance — such as job training, English classes, Medicaid or food stamps — but Indiana can’t keep out the refugees once they are legally admitted to the country.

Withholding these services may violate Indiana’s agreement with the federal government to provide such services in exchange for which it receives federal funds. Whether Indiana can legally deny such services depends on state law and the terms of the federal contract, Stephen Legomsky, a Washington University of St. Louis law professor and former chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration, told USA Today.

Even if Indiana isn’t violating its agreement with the federal government, to deny aid to refugees from one country “is most likely a constitutional violation” of equal protection guarantees and “the exclusivity of the federal power to set immigration policy,” Legomsky said.

Pence’s decision isn’t just unfair, it’s also pricey, according to the lawsuit.

“Exodus Refugee Immigration had expended both staff time and resources in preparing for the Syrian refugee family who did not come to Indiana,” the suit complains. “These resources were necessarily diverted from other projects and from assisting other refugees.”

Since the non-profit has vowed to help resettle other Syrian refugees, it fears it will unfairly shoulder similarly costs in the future unless Pence’s directive is overturned by the federal court.

“Once these Syrian families are placed here in Indiana, the Governor has indicated that state agencies, including the Family and Social Services Administration, will refuse to assist the refugees,” according to the lawsuit. “When this occurs, Exodus Refugee Immigration will be required to expend both additional staff time and organizational resources to make up for the monies and services that will not be provided by the State of Indiana and its agencies to the refugees.”

As the legal standoff plays out in Indiana and, possibly, other states as well, the Syrian family of three in Connecticut is thankful to finally have a home where they feel “very welcomed.”

[For Syrians in Michigan, call to block refugees is a gut punch]

“You have to imagine that people are in Syria, the bombs are falling on them, they can’t live in their homes, they leave, they live in Jordan, and it’s still difficult for them,” the father told the New York Times. “And then they find this opportunity to live a better life and they take it. That’s what people have to recognize.”

As for the gubernatorial U-turn that threw a final twist into their four-year journey to America, the family of refugees does not appear to bear any grudge.

“One person’s decision, the governor’s decision, doesn’t reflect all of Indiana’s decision,” the father told the Times. “Maybe the governor is going to reflect and find in himself that he had made a mistake and come back and see the light.”