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For Alabama Governor, Suit Over Refugee Program Is About Fixing Process


Questions about the U.S. refugee screening program are surfacing again. This, after two Iraqi-born men were arrested on terrorism-related charges in Texas and California. They came to this country as refugees. Republicans in Congress are pushing for changes in the system, and two Republican governors have now sued the federal government over the resettlement of refugees. The latest lawsuit comes from Alabama, which is seeking details about refugees placed within its borders. NPR's Debbie Elliott has the story.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Republican Governor Robert Bentley says the refugees arrested yesterday are proof the system is broken. He says the Obama administration is blatantly excluding the states from critical information about refugees.


ROBERT BENTLEY: I cannot do my job as governor of protecting the people of this state and making them secure if we don't know who is coming into our state.

ELLIOTT: The lawsuit alleges the federal government is in violation of the Refugee Act of 1980 by not consulting with state and local governments about refugees settled within their borders. Texas filed a similar lawsuit late last year. After the November attacks in Paris, Bentley and several other governors opposed the settlement of Syrian refugees in their states. Bentley issued an executive order to block them. He says the new lawsuit is not about Syrian refugees or any individuals but about fixing a flawed process. It asks for a complete file on refugees and a certification that they pose no security risk.


BENTLEY: The purpose of our lawsuit is to make sure that any refugee that comes into Alabama, they notify us on the front end so that we know who they are, where they are, where they're going to go and so that we can track these individuals. Not to try to harm them in any way but just to make sure that these individuals do not bring in any type of terrorist act or any kind of communicable disease.

CECILLIA WANG: The state of Alabama just has the law completely wrong.

ELLIOTT: Cecillia Wang is director of the national ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project.

WANG: They're completely wrong on the law and are trying to turn our national refugee resettlement policy into a political football.

ELLIOTT: The Justice Department declined to comment on the Alabama lawsuit, but in a court filing in response to the Texas case, the Justice Department said the federal government has exclusive constitutional authority over immigration. The Obama administration said the refugee law does not create any obligation to provide advanced consultation regarding individual settlement decisions. Lavinia Limon is president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of the organizations that resettles refugees. She's troubled by the idea that states could be privy to private information and then be able to track refugee movement.

LAVINIA LIMON: Refugees are, once they land in the United States, are legally admitted and are legal residents. And as such, just like you and I, they can live wherever they want to.

ELLIOTT: Limon says she believes fear is motivating the lawsuits. She calls it unfounded given that only about a hundred or so refugees a year are settled in Alabama, and none of them thus far has been from Syria. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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