By Stephanie Wang
A federal judge overrode Gov. Mike Pence's attempt to stop Syrian refugee resettlement in Indiana, issuing a preliminary injunction Monday that the state immediately contested.
At question is whether Pence has the authority to stop federal dollars that flow through the state to help refugees resettle in Indiana. He suspended Syrian refugee resettlement in the state last year, citing security concerns after terrorist attacks in Paris and questions about the screening of Syrian refugees.
But U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt sided Monday with Exodus Refugee Immigration, a local nonprofit that aids refugees, in its lawsuit contending that Pence's decision is unconstitutionally unfair to Syrians.
She ordered the state to stop blocking those funds until the case is resolved.
"The withholding of funds from Exodus that are meant to provide social services to Syrian refugees in no way directly, or even indirectly, promotes the safety of Indiana citizens," Pratt wrote in the injunction.
Because Pence is targeting only Syrians and no refugees from other countries, Pratt later added: "The State's conduct clearly constitutes national origin discrimination."
The state failed to prove, she said, "that temporary national origin discrimination is any more constitutionally acceptable than permanent discrimination."
But Pence said in a statement Monday that he stands by his decision to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement in Indiana. He ordered the attorney general's office to seek an immediate stay on the judge's action and appeal it.
"So long as the Obama administration continues to refuse to address gaps in the screening of Syrian refugees acknowledged by the FBI and a bipartisan majority in Congress," Pence said, "Hoosiers can be assured that my administration will continue to use every legal means available to suspend this program in Indiana unless and until federal officials take steps to ensure the safety and security of our citizens."
In court records, the state argued that the suspension of funds was meant to deter resettlement agencies from bringing in Syrians until the federal government can assure that Syrian refugees are sufficiently screened and pose no public safety threat.
The financial support goes toward services for refugees such as employment training and English language classes. Exodus pays for those services and is reimbursed by the state.
"The bottom line here is what the court said -- you have to treat all refugees equally," said Ken Falk, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The ACLU of Indiana is representing Exodus in its lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana.
Falk said Syrian refugees are extensively vetted before being allowed to resettle in the United States. "We're not talking about opening up floodgates."
Pence's directive hasn't stopped Syrians from moving to Indiana. Though one family slated to come to Indianapolis in December was redirected to Connecticut, Exodus brought to Indiana another family of four in January and is planning for others to arrive in the coming months, said interim executive director Cole Varga.
The federal judge wrote in her court order that the state is not deterring the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana, nor could the state know that it would be stopping people who could pose a security risk.
IndyStar reporter Kristine Guerra contributed to this story.
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