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ACLU moves forward with refugee suit despite Pence's remarks

December 9, 2015

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence retreated further from his recent efforts to bar Syrian refugees from the state, saying that he would allow federal money such as food stamps, temporary monetary assistance and health care benefits to go to refugees settling there.

In the clearest statement yet of exactly how much restrictions Indiana would place on refugees, Pence's administration also said Wednesday that the governor's order blocks only a limited amount of state funding for refugee organizations resettling Syrians— an amount that is just a fraction of the overall cost of resettling a refugee.

The statements mark a softening of Pence's stance after he was one of more than 30 governors, all but one a Republican, who sought to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees over security concerns following the deadly Paris attacks last month.

Pence explained his position amid questions about just how much authority he actually has. The Obama administration has said the vetting process for refugee resettlements is thorough and that states lack legal standing to block the funding.

"It breaks my heart to think about what these people have gone through," Pence said Tuesday before reiterating his commitment to use his "authority to suspend this program unless and until we see action in Washington, D.C."

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis on Monday settled a Syrian family of four in Indiana against Pence's wishes, stating it was an "essential part" of the Catholic church's identity.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana said Wednesday that it will continue to press a lawsuit against Pence despite his change of tone.

Ken Falk, legal director of the ACLU's Indiana chapter, said it's difficult to reconcile Pence's current statements with the governor's initial order. Falk filed suit on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, which sent a Syrian family bound for Indiana to Connecticut due to Pence's objection.

"If there was going to be no interruption, suspension or revocation of aid, I suspect it would have been mentioned at this point as we litigate the case," Falk said. "They (Exodus) have never been told anything to the contrary."

A federal judge on Tuesday set a January court date for an initial hearing on the lawsuit, and attorneys for the state must respond in writing to the ACLU legal filing later this month.

The debate over Syrian refugees relocating to Indiana took on a new dimension this week after Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump drew widespread condemnation for suggesting Muslims from other countries should be temporarily barred from entering the United States. That prompted Pence to rebuke Trump on Twitter, saying calls to ban Muslims "are offensive and unconstitutional." Pence later said he would support Trump if he became the Republican nominee.

Democrats accused Pence of political posturing on the issue.

"In light of his remarks yesterday, Pence's decision to not deny any benefits, such as food stamps and health care, to the family proves the governor not only had zero legal ground to ban Syrian refugees from Indiana but in fact, it was all a political stunt," said Drew Anderson, spokesman for the Indiana Democratic Party.

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