They couldn't forcibly stop them from coming to their states, though. Refugees are immigrants fleeing war or persecution in their native countries whom the federal government has granted entry into the United States. They are in this country legally, and like citizens and other legal residents, they're free to move from state to state. You don't have to show a passport when you cross a state line on the highway. A group of charitable and faith-based organizations ultimately decides where refugees will go and helps them settle there.
The largest of those groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will try to do what is right for the refugees, regardless of political opposition, said the conference's director of migration policy, Kevin Appleby.
Governors "don't really have the authority to deny the entry of a Syrian refugee into their state," he said. For now, he added, "we would proceed to place refugees where we think it's in their best interests to go."
The groups work independently, with funding from the federal government.
"In terms of the initial resettlement, and helping them find work and an apartment, we could do that absent the state cooperating," Appleby said.
All the same, Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana and a GOP candidate for president, issued an executive order Monday instructing his state's agencies and officers to "utilize all lawful means" to keep Syrian refugees out.
If Jindal and other governors are prepared to use any available legal measures to prevent refugees from settling in their states, there are several options open to them. Collectively, the governors could complicate the Obama administration's efforts to settle more Syrian refugees here, especially because the governors of Texas and Michigan — two states that accept large numbers of refugees — do not want to shelter more people fleeing the violence in Syria.
States generally have a liaison whose office is responsible for providing refugees with public services and benefits, such as employment and training programs and food stamps and cash assistance if necessary. These programs are typically funded by the federal government and administered by the states.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordered Texas's refugee agency "to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the State of Texas," as he wrote in a letter to President Obama on Monday. It is unclear what this directive will mean for Syrians seeking to take advantage of the agency's services.
In 2010, Nathan Deal, the Republican governor of Georgia, withheld money intended for English-language and employment training for refugees. Deal was apparently concerned that Georgia was receiving too many refugees. Abbott, whose letter called on Obama to deny Syrian refugees entry, could conceivably restrict funds for programs intended to help them.
"It would certainly be disruptive," said Kathleen Newland, a founder of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "There are a lot of refugees resettled in Texas."
Texas received roughly 7,000 refugees, more than any other state, in 2013, which is the most recent year for which federal statistics are available. Other states, though, receive more refugees compared to their overall populations, as shown in the chart below.
State-level policymakers could go further and terminate health insurance for some refugees. While federal rules dictate many of the benefits for which which refugees are eligible, states can determine whether children and pregnant women receive health insurance as a public benefit.
In Texas, while most immigrants are ineligible for Medicaid, pediatric and prenatal care is generally available. The maternity ward is also open to immigrant mothers in Louisiana, and Jindal could try to limit prenatal care if he is committed to discouraging Syrian refugees from entering his state.
"There are things they can do to make it more difficult for people to integrate," said Appleby of the bishops conference.
He and others criticized the governors' statements, saying many Americans want to help those suffering as result of the civil war in Syria.
"The faith groups have been getting literally tens of thousands of calls from people who want to help," said Melanie Nezer, a vice president at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "It's really about rescuing the most vulnerable people who are victims of terrorism."
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Nathan Deal on first reference. He is the governor of Georgia. We regret the error.