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Marshall Cohen Comments on Gov. Deal’s Efforts to Block Syrian Refugees

The Paris attacks by ISIS were horrendous crimes against humanity. In their wake, we understandably want to prevent anything remotely similar from happening here. Governor Deal’s “refusal” to accept Syrian refugees in Georgia, however, is practically and legally an empty gesture that does nothing to that end. It fails to make us safer and only weakens us by promoting misinformation and fueling senseless fear.

First, the Governor has no legal basis for refusing entry of any refugee to the state. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the President has express, exclusive authority to annually admit a limited number of refugees. A refugee is defined as a person outside his or country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The executive branch’s authority over immigration is derived from Article 1 of the Constitution and has been recognized repeatedly throughout history by the Supreme Court, as in Hines v. Davidowitz, a 1941 decision: “the supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution.” Thus it would be illegal for a state to refuse entry to refugees from a particular country. Moreover, the vast majority of resources for refugee resettlement are federal and administered by private agencies such as churches and non-profits. So while the Governor could make Syrian refugees feel unwelcome by refusing them access to state resources, such a policy would be legally and morally indefensible.

Second, choosing to enter the U.S. as a refugee in order to cause us harm would be the most difficult way to accomplish that goal. In Europe, the urgent circumstances of dealing with tens of thousands of desperate arrivals by boat and at land borders required an immediate humanitarian response. Unlike Europe, the U.S. fortunately has no such crushing humanitarian crisis. Rather, the U.S. has the luxury of vetting refugees through a lengthy, well-established process. Applicants must apply from outside the U.S. to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees where they are first screened before being referred to our government. Upon referral, our government conducts multiple layers of security checks involving the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense and our intelligence agencies. Potential refugees are personally interviewed, and the process typically takes at least 18 – 24 months before a refugee is cleared to step foot in the U.S. Refugees undergo the most rigorous security screening process of anyone seeking to enter the U.S. Far fewer resources are devoted to those applying to enter the U.S. through the visa waiver program or as tourists, students, or temporary employees.

Lastly, we should not as a nation regress in the direction advocated by the Governor, which is to withdraw and relinquish our role as a global humanitarian leader who has traditionally protected and defended those persecuted for their religion, race or political opinion. We have to be careful not to act impulsively in response to the violence and tragedy of Paris. Instead, we must combat terrorism with a strong, measured and focused response in line with our country’s history and values.

The security of our country is paramount. But the kneejerk, senseless response of blaming refugees is not the solution. America can continue to welcome deserving refugees while at the same time ensuring our own security. We must do both, and we must oppose those who wish to render the Statue of Liberty an obsolete remnant of a more noble and confident past.

If you have any questions about the refugee situation or any issues with immigration of yourself or a loved one, call us for more information.

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