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Court blocks Trump executive order allowing state and local officials to refuse refugees

President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office in less than two weeks, has expressed support for rebuilding the U.S. refugee program.

(RNS) — Three faith-based refugee resettlement organizations are declaring “victory” in their court battle to block President Donald Trump’s 2019 executive order allowing state and local officials to refuse refugees.

The decision came Friday (Jan. 8) as Maryland’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a preliminary injunction blocking the order.


RELATED: Biden pledges to raise refugee ceiling to 125,000 in address to Jesuit group


“This ruling is a rebuke to those who would hold xenophobia as the core tenet of U.S. policy on resettlement, but it also lets the world’s most vulnerable know that our country remains a place of welcome,” said the Rev. John L. McCullough, president and CEO of Church World Service.

“For refugees, it will no longer be a choice between joining their loved ones and accessing critical services as they build lives of purpose in America. For communities of faith, it means that we will not be hobbled in living out our duty to embrace those in need.” 

The court battle started in September 2019, when Trump issued an executive order requiring state and local officials to give written consent in advance for refugees to be resettled in their jurisdictions.

“The Trump administration’s Executive Order requiring consent from every jurisdiction in the country — which number in the thousands — was a blatant attempt to block refugee resettlement. There was no legitimate reason to do this other than to make life harder for refugees, who have already suffered enough and simply want to start their new lives in peace,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

Two months later, HIAS, Church World Service and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service filed a complaint to block the order, arguing it inhibited their ability to practice their faith by resettling refugees.

Six of the nine agencies tasked with refugee resettlement by the federal government — including the three involved in the complaint — are faith-based.

Before winning a preliminary injunction in HIAS v. Trump last year, those organizations obtained the required consent to resettle refugees from 42 governors and more than 100 local authorities before winning, by Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service’s count.

Only Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had said he would not allow resettlement in his state, according to the organization.

Friday’s decision upholds that injunction, and HIAS said in its written statement that likely spells the end of the order. The Trump administration still could appeal the decision to the full circuit court or directly to the Supreme Court, it said, but the prospect is unlikely with President-elect Joe Biden, who has expressed support for rebuilding the U.S. refugee program, taking office in less than two weeks.

In one of his first speeches as president-elect, Biden pledged to raise the number of refugees who can be admitted into the U.S. to 125,000, slightly higher than it was in former President Barack Obama’s last year in office. That comes after Trump cut that number to a historic low this year of 15,000.

“The urgency of the moment calls for love and compassion, and a recommitment to uphold the American legacy of hospitality for those who need it the most,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

“It is our civic duty to advocate for the voiceless and hold those in power accountable for restoring the humanitarian principles that have long guided our nation’s moral leadership.”