Setting the stage for similar legal battles across the country, the ACLU of Indiana has sued Gov. Mike Pence over his refusal to allow refugees fleeing Syria's civil war to resettle in the state, saying his actions "are not in line with Hoosier or American values."
The lawsuit (pdf), filed Monday night in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, accuses Pence of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by accepting refugees from other countries but not those from Syria. Pence also is accused of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for suspending resettlement of Syrian refugees "solely because of their national origin," the complaint says.
Pence is one of more than 25 U.S. governors, mostly Republicans, who have publicly called on President Barack Obama to stop resettling Syrian refugees following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Experts have questioned whether governors have the legal authority to stop refugees from being settled in their states, and the ACLU has promised legal action in states that do so.
Judy Rabinovitz, deputy legal director of ACLU's immigrants' rights project, said the lawsuit was essentially "calling out Governor Pence on his unconstitutional bluff."
"He does not have the power to pick and choose between which lawfully admitted refugees he is willing to accept," she said. "Singling out Syrian refugees for exclusion from Indiana is not only ethically wrong, it is unconstitutional. Period."
"There is no border around the state of Indiana that prevents people from entering our state who may move freely within the United States," added Ken Falk, legal director for the state ACLU chapter, which is acting on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, Inc., an Indianapolis nonprofit organization that resettles refugees in Indiana.
"Decisions concerning immigration and refugee resettlement are exclusively the province of the federal government," Falk said, "and attempts to pre-empt that authority violate both equal protection and civil rights laws and intrude on authority that is exclusively federal."
And beyond that, said Exodus Refugee executive director Carleen Miller, Pence's suspension of resettlement for Syrian refugees goes against the state's values.
"Indiana is a welcoming state known for our hospitality," she said. "History will judge us in this moment—whether we take the moral stand for victims of war and persecution in their time of need or reject our core principles by giving in to fear and terror."
According to the Indy Star:
Shortly after Pence made his announcement on Nov. 16, a family of Syrian refugees who were supposed to arrive Dec. 10 in Indianapolis were diverted away from the state and were later welcomed in Connecticut. The family waited three years to move to Indianapolis. The complaint says Exodus had expended both staff time and resources to prepare for the arrival of the Syrian family—resources that would've assisted other refugees.
Of course, as Natasha Lennard wrote for The Intercept last week, state-level attempts to block Syrian refugees also give "the false impression that the Obama administration had planned to make much space for Syrians at all."
Just 40 Syrian refugees have resettled in Indiana since 2010, according to the state Family and Social Services Administration; in 2016, Exodus Refugee plans to resettle 19 Syrians approved for refugee status by the federal government.
"We urge the governor to affirm the American value of protecting refugees who seek sanctuary from the brutality of terrorism," said Jane Henegar, ACLU of Indiana executive director. "These refugees are fleeing violence and oppression and should not be blamed for the very terror they are fleeing."