GREENBELT, Md. -- A federal judge on Wednesday pressed a government lawyer to explain why President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing state and local governments to reject refugees, questioning whether the change was politically motivated.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Maryland didn't immediately rule on a request by three national refugee resettlement agencies for a preliminary injunction stopping the Trump administration from enforcing the order.
During a hearing on the request, the judge said the president's order essentially changed a federal law governing the resettlement of refugees.
“On what authority is the president acting?” Messitte asked Justice Department attorney Bradley Humphreys.
Humphreys said the 1980 Refugee Act gives the president “ample authority” to make such a change.
“Why change it now?" Messitte asked. “Is it purely a political thing?”
Humphreys said the executive order is designed to enhance the involvement of state and local officials in the process of resettling refugees. But he insisted it doesn’t give them a “veto” over resettlement decisions.
The Trump administration announced in November that resettlement agencies must get written consent from state and local officials in any jurisdiction where they want to help resettle refugees beyond June 2020.
“It's not at all clear how it could be anything other than a veto, practically speaking,” said Linda Evarts, an attorney for one of the resettlement agencies that sued in November. “When you see how it operates in practice, or how we assume it will operate in practice, it can only mean a veto.”
The agencies argue the order illegally conflicts with the Refugee Act.
“These are difficult decisions,” plaintiffs' attorney Melissa Keaney said. “Placing a family in the right location is critical, and Congress understood that.”
Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and HIAS — a Jewish nonprofit — filed the lawsuit in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 21. They are three of the nine national organizations agencies that have agreements with the federal government to provide housing and other services for refugees.
“They have been providing these resettlement services for decades," plaintiffs' attorney Justin Cox said.
At least 41 states have publicly agreed to accept refugees, but a governor's decision doesn't preclude local officials from refusing to give their consent. For instance, the Democratic mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, has refused to give written consent for refugees to be resettled in the city.
HIAS President Mark Hetfield called it “unacceptable and un-American” that refugees could be banned from living in cities or even entire states. He said the executive order doesn't explain how the secretary of state could override a governor or county official's refusal to give consent.
“It's even worse than a veto,” Hetfield said. “It's very clear that we can't even submit for a place unless we think that they're going to consent.”
Before Trump signed the executive order, state and local officials were given a voice but not a veto in deciding where refugees would be resettled, resettlement agency lawyers argue.
Trump’s order says the agencies were not working closely enough with local officials on resettling refugees and his administration acted to respect communities that believe they do not have the jobs or other resources to be able to take in refugees. Refugees have the right to move anywhere in the United States after their initial resettlement, but at their own expense.
The judge said he should issue a decision “pretty quickly.” He asked the attorneys to submit proposals for the scope of a preliminary injunction by Friday.
The Trump administration has capped the number of refugee admissions at 18,000 for the current fiscal year. About 30,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. during the past fiscal year; between 150,000 and 200,000 remain in the pipeline for possible U.S. resettlement while they live abroad, according to Evarts, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.
Associated Press reporter Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this story.