The November terrorist attacks in Paris have prompted the governors of 26 U.S. states to oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees within their borders. Is this mere political grandstanding, or do 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 a 1915 decision, 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," all businesses with more than five employees were required to maintain a workforce that was 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.
The Supreme Court sided with Raich and struck down the nativist statute. "If such a policy were permissible," the court ruled, "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 lawful Syrian refugees.