Can State Governors Lawfully Reject Syrian Refugees?
At least 26 governors now oppose letting Syrian refugees resettle in their states.
In the wake of Friday's terrorist attacks in Paris, the governors of at least 26 U.S. states have declared themselves in opposition to the resettlement of Syrian refugees within their respective state borders. In the words of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), "I will oppose any attempt to relocate Syrian refugees to Alabama through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. As your Governor, I will not stand complicit to a policy that places the citizens of Alabama in harm's way."
Is this mere political grandstanding, or do Bentley and his fellow governors actually possess the lawful power to keep Syrian refugees—or any other class of legally admitted aliens—out of their respective states?
The U.S. Supreme Court provided an answer to these questions in its 1915 decision in Truax v. Raich. At issue was the constitutionality of an Arizona law designed to prevent unwelcome foreigners from settling in that state by denying them the ability to secure meaningful employment. Under the terms of Arizona's "act to protect the citizens of the United States in their employment against non-citizens of the United States, in Arizona," all businesses with more than five employees were required to maintain a workforce that was comprised of at least 80 percent "qualified electors or native-born citizens." As a direct result of this legislation, an Austrian-born cook named Mike Raich lost his job. Raich filed suit and eventually wound up before the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court sided with Raich and struck down the nativist state action. "The assertion of an authority to deny to aliens the opportunity of earning a livelihood when lawfully admitted to the State would be tantamount to the assertion of the right to deny them entrance and abode, for in ordinary cases they cannot live where they cannot work," the Court declared. "And, if such a policy were permissible, the practical result would be that those lawfully admitted to the country under the authority of the acts of Congress, instead of enjoying in a substantial sense and in their full scope the privileges conferred by the admission, would be segregated in such of the States as chose to offer hospitality."
Put differently, Congress possesses the constitutional power to regulate the admission of aliens to the United States. Once an alien has been lawfully admitted under federal law, no state may "deny them entrance and abode." That standard plainly covers the treatment of Syrian refugees that have been lawfully admitted to the United States.