A judge considering a challenge to Republican Gov. Mike Pence's order barring state agencies from helping Syrian refugees resettle in Indiana appeared skeptical Friday, peppering the state's lawyer with questions about whether the directive was achieving its stated goal of protecting the state's security.
Pence had cited concerns following the deadly Paris terrorist attacks when he issued the order in November. He later noted in an opinion piece that a passport found near one of the suicide bombers had been registered along the route asylum seekers from Syria are taking through Europe. More than two dozen states, most with Republican governors, have taken action to suspend programs to resettle Syrian refugees.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, which had said at the time it expected to settle about 19 Syrians vetted by the federal government within the next several months. The group said Pence's order would hurt aid groups by withholding reimbursements for housing and medical care made by those organizations to assist Syrian refugees.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt noted at Friday's hearing on the group's request for a preliminary injunction blocking Pence's order that Indiana had no actual ability to prevent Syrian refugees from entering the state, and pressed Indiana Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher on how Pence's action was improving the state's security.
"How does not paying the claims for those services protect the state?" Pratt asked Fisher, who replied that the goal was to remove incentives for Exodus Refugee Immigration and other groups to resettle Syrians in the state.
"So we should feel protected now as Indiana citizens?" Pratt asked.
ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk said during his arguments that the group had resettled four Syrian refugees in the state during January and was expected resettle more this year. After the hearing he said he did not have specific numbers on how many more Syrians would be settled in Indiana by Exodus, saying only "there are still people in the pipeline who will be coming."
The ACLU of Indiana's lawsuit accuses the state of violating the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act by accepting refugees from other countries but not from Syria.
"Here we have the governor claiming he can pick and choose which refugees to admit," Falk told Pratt, saying Pence's order is harming Exodus' basic mission of helping refugees.
Pratt asked why Pence's order applied to refugees from Syria but not from Iraq and Afghanistan, where terrorists are also active.
Fisher said it was based on the expertise of federal officials about the situation in Syria. He mentioned FBI Director James Comey, who testified to Congress that there were risks associated with Syrian refugees because of challenges in conducting background checks on them.
Pratt said she'd consider the arguments made Friday and an additional filing the state must file with her court by Feb. 22, and expects to rule on the temporary injunction request by the end of February.