Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is being sued over his decision to block Syrian refugees from resettling in the state.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit Monday night on behalf of the Indianapolis-based not-for-profit Exodus Refugee Immigration. It accuses Pence of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by accepting refugees from other countries but not those from Syria.
The lawsuit comes about a week after Pence objected to plans for refugees to arrive in Indiana following the deadly attacks in Paris. A family that fled war-torn Syria was diverted from Indianapolis to Connecticut on Nov. 18 when Pence ordered state agencies to halt resettlement activities.
More than half of the states in the U.S., most, like Indiana, with Republican governors, have objected to the arrival of the Syrian immigrants without assurances of proper security measures in place.
But individual states do not have the legal authority to block refugee placement. The Refugee Act of 1980 dictates that refugee resettlement is managed by the federal government, which consults with state refugee coordinators and the nine refugee resettlement agencies that have contracts with the government, but that consultation is largely to ensure the refugees are settled in cities with adequate jobs, housing and social services.
"There is no border around the state of Indiana that prevents people from entering our state who may move freely within the United States," ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk said in a written statement. "Decisions concerning immigration and refugee resettlement are exclusively the province of the federal government, and attempts to pre-empt that authority violate both equal protection and civil rights laws and intrude on authority that is exclusively federal."
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop the governor from taking any actions to suspend, block or withhold aid from refugees or from Exodus. Exodus receives federal money through the state's Office of Refugee Programs, located within the Family and Social Services Administration, to assist in resettlement of federally approved and screened refugees. The funds are used to assist with employment training, English language education and other services.
Exodus has settled 892 refugees, including some from Syria, in the past fiscal year, and is projected to settle approximately that number in 2016, including 19 Syrians approved for refugee status by the federal government that have been placed with Exodus and who are expected to arrive in Indiana in the next few weeks or months.
Pence has defended his refusal to accept Syrian refugees. In a letter Pence sent to several newspapers, including IBJ, he said he was "deeply moved" by the plight of people trying to escape threats of violence and seeking a better life in Indiana but called his policy prudent in light of "security gaps" regarding refugees from Syria.
"Indiana and the U.S. must continue to serve as a safe harbor for refugees from around the world; 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," Pence wrote.