The panic over Syrian refugees has officially crossed into the real world. This week, the state of Indiana succeeded in getting a refugee family that was supposed to settle in Indianapolis sent to Connecticut to live instead.
This almost certainly won't be the last time governors try to keep out Syrian refugees. Here's how it happened, and why it could put the whole refugee system under strain.
The Indiana charity didn't have to agree to the state's request, but it did
The federal government works with nonprofit organizations to decide where a refugee should be settled. States are consulted, but they don't make the final decision. So it's important to note that while Indiana's Mike Pence and other governors are saying they'll prevent Syrian refugees from entering the US, the best they can do in practice is ask the nonprofit organization in charge of settling refugees in the state to find somewhere else to put people.
But in this case, that worked. The state of Indiana wrote to Exodus Refugee International, the Indianapolis-based nonprofit in charge of resettling the refugee family that was supposed to arrive in the city tomorrow, and asked "that you notify your national resettlement agency that [...] the Syrian family scheduled to arrive this Thursday, November 19, and all subsequent Syrian arrivals be suspended or redirected to another state."
That's what the executive director of Exodus did. She wasn't happy about it — she told the New York Times, "My role is to create a welcoming environment here in our state that gives a safe haven to refugees. That we can’t be that because our state is not welcoming all is really painful." But she worked with the national organization Episcopal Migration Ministries to find a local group in another state that would be willing to resettle the family, and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven agreed to pick up the slack.
Exodus could have stuck to its guns and refused to arrange for the refugees to be redirected. That might have forced a showdown with the state government, if Pence continued to insist the state could prevent refugees from entering. More likely, though, Exodus would have had to resettle the family in Indianapolis on its own — without help from state social services.
Refugee resettlement groups don't want this to set a precedent. But of course it will.
The director of the New Haven refugee organization told the Times, "By diverting this family, we don't want to set a precedent." But it seems inevitable that that's exactly what's going to happen.
Pence and the state of Indiana have demonstrated that governors can successfully keep refugees from settling in their states. The other 25 states whose governors have declared they don't want Syrian refugees will inevitably take notice and follow suit.
Refugee resettlement organizations (and state governments) in the handful of states that are explicitly welcoming Syrian refugees will end up stretched to, or beyond, their capacity. This might take a while to happen — after all, fewer than 200 Syrian refugees per month are coming to the US right now. But refugee groups aren't that large, and it takes a lot of resources to integrate a refugee family.
The Obama administration could alleviate the resource crunch by sending non-Syrian refugees to states that reject Syrian ones — but that would be a tacit acceptance of the governors' refusal, something President Obama doesn't seem willing to countenance.
Alternatively, the State Department could try to tell resettlement nonprofits that when they're requested to find another state for a Syrian family, they ought to refuse. But there's good reason that a nonprofit organization wouldn't want to resettle a refugee family in a state hostile to them. Beyond the unwelcoming rhetoric, state funds provide concrete material resources that refugee nonprofits need to help the families they are assisting — things like English classes, job training, and academic support for kids in school. It’s possible to get the job done without that help, but it’s difficult, and refugee families will pay the price.
Either way, the refugee nonprofits are likely to be under a tremendous amount of strain over the next several months. The Obama administration might continue to insist that legally speaking, states can't stop refugees from settling there. But unless something changes, practically speaking they're going to be able to. If the administration firmly believes in welcoming Syrian refugees, it's going to need to figure out a better solution.