By Kristine Guerra
Gov. Mike Pence is facing a federal lawsuit that challenges his power to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana.
The lawsuit, filed Monday night, accuses Pence of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution by accepting refugees from other countries but not those from Syria. It comes a week after the Indiana governor -- and many of his counterparts around the country -- suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states following terrorist attacks in Paris.
The complaint was filed Monday night in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, an Indianapolis nonprofit organization that resettles refugees in Indiana. John Wernert, secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, which oversees refugee settlement in the state, is the other defendant named in the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for Pence did not immediately return a request for comment Monday night, but Pence said in an editorial that he is "deeply moved" by the plight of people trying to escape threats of violence and seeking a better life in Indiana. However, he said, the federal government must first address "security gaps" regarding refugees from Syria.
"Indiana and the U.S. must continue to serve as a safe harbor for refugees from around the world; however, unless and until the federal government addresses the security gaps acknowledged by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security with regard to refugees from Syria, as governor I will continue to put the safety and security of Hoosiers first," Pence wrote.
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.
"Decisions concerning immigration and refugee resettlement are exclusively the province of the federal government, and attempts to pre-empt that authority violate both equal protection and civil rights laws and intrude on authority that is exclusively federal," ACLU of Indiana's legal director, Ken Falk, said in a news release.
The complaint cites the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives the president of the United States the power to increase the number of refugees admitted into the country for humanitarian reasons. President Barack Obama announced in September that the U.S. will take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
According to the 13-page complaint, Pence's decision also caused some financial harm to Exodus, which receives federal money to aid refugees resettling in the state. The funds, which are funneled through state agencies, are spent on employment training, English language education and other services, according to the ACLU of Indiana.
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.
The complaint says the federal government has approved 19 other Syrians to be resettled in Indiana over the next few months, and Exodus will have to use its own resources to prepare for the arrival of those refugees regardless of Pence's order. The agency will not be reimbursed for its expenses if state officials refuse to provide assistance, the complaint says.
Exodus is supposed to receive 890 refugees for 2016, all of whom have been approved for refugee status by the federal government. Of those refugees, 215 are expected to be from Northeast or South Asia, with a large number coming from Syria, according to the complaint.
The ACLU of Indiana is asking a federal judge to issue a ruling that would temporarily prevent state officials from blocking resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana.
Pence's decision attracted criticisms from the ACLU of Indiana, Exodus, Center for Victim and Human Rights, and Muslim Alliance of Indiana, all of whom asked the governor to reconsider his position.
Governors from Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Texas also have announced they will refuse to accept Syrian refugees in their respective states. The decision was prompted by reports suggesting that one of the Paris bombers may have posed as a Syrian refugee.
The U.S. House of Representatives, including most of Indiana's federal lawmakers, voted last week to halt the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the country until they undergo a vetting process that's more rigorous than any foreigners seeking admission to the U.S. have to go through.
Indiana takes in about 1,600 refugees from all countries each year, with the largest population being Burmese. About 40 Syrian refugees have resettled in the state since 2010, according to the Family and Social Services Administration.
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