Even as the world debated Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump’s desire to prevent Muslims from entering the United States because they might be terrorists, a federal court was deciding whether a state could prevent Syrian refugees from settling within its borders because they might be terrorists.
Its conclusion: No way. The ruling came after the Texas Health and Human Services Commission asked for a temporary restraining order to prevent refugees from settling in the Lone Star State.
“The Commission argues that terrorists could have infiltrated the Syrian refugees and could commit acts of terrorism in Texas,” Judge David C. Godbey of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas wrote. “The Court finds that the evidence before it is largely speculative hearsay.”
The problem, according to the court: There’s no proof any refugee is gearing up to wage jihad out west.
“The Commission has failed to show by competent evidence that any terrorists actually have infiltrated the refugee program, much less that these particular refugees are terrorists intent on causing harm,” Godbey wrote.
While the court did not want to “downplay the risks that terrorism, as a general matter, may pose,” the order also questioned whether the judicial branch should be weighing in on such matters. This was a job, the order implied, for President Obama, not men and women in black robes.
“The fact that this Court is required to assess the risk posed by a group of Syrian refugees illustrates one of the problems with this case,” Godbey wrote. “The Court has no institutional competency in assessing the risk posed by refugees. That is precisely the sort of question that is, as a general matter, committed to the discretion of the executive branch of the federal government, not to a district court.”
The ruling came as a blow – though not an unexpected one – for a state that’s taken on the most visible official effort to prevent resettlement of refugees. While up to 31 states, most with Republican governors, have sought to prevent Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland from resettling, Texas is the only one that’s gone so far as to sue the federal government.
“The threats to America’s security are difficult to assess,” Gov. Greg Abbott, R, who is pushing for stricter legislation on refugee resettlement on Capitol Hill, said Tuesday, as the Los Angeles Times reported. “That is why Texas and other states are doing even more to ensure that we safeguard the security of our citizens.”
Despite sometimes heated rhetoric to the contrary, it’s generally agreed that states do not have the ability to prevent the federal government from resettling refugees within their borders. In 1980, future president Bill Clinton, then a mere governor, found this out when President Carter sent Cuban refugees to Arkansas over Clinton’s strong objections. When the refugees rioted and brought a public relations disaster, Clinton claimed that Carter cost him a second term.
Texas quickly retreated just last week after it sought to block the first group of refugees set to arrive – and the Justice Department said it had no power to do so. Texas didn’t agree, but said it had gotten the information about these refugees that it needed to feel safe.
“Texas shouldn’t have to go to court to require Washington to comply with federal law regarding its duties to consult with Texas in advance,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “Our state will continue legal proceedings to ensure we get the information necessary to adequately protect the safety of Texas residents.”
Indeed, faced with another group of refugees, Paxton filed papers Wednesday to prevent their resettlement. Citing comments by Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee , Paxton said “evidence came to light . . . that terrorist organizations have infiltrated the very refugee program that is central to the dispute before this Court.”
Even as Paxton’s request was denied, some of the refugees Texas tried to keep out of its borders were already there. One family of six settled in Dallas; another family of six settled in Houston; and nine more are en route.
“They are happy to be here,” Lucy Carrigan, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, a refugee group sued by Texas, told the Los Angeles Times. The refugees are also “aware of what is going on,” she said.