Watch CBS News

ACLU sues Indiana over Syrian refugee exclusion

INDIANAPOLIS - A lawsuit is challenging the Indiana governor's decision to stop state agencies from helping resettle Syrian refugees, saying the action wrongly targets the refugees based on their nationality.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the federal lawsuit Monday night on behalf of Indianapolis-based nonprofit Exodus Refugee Immigration. It accuses Gov. Mike Pence of violating the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by accepting refugees from other countries but not from Syria.

Syrian family starts new life in Texas amid refugee tension 02:54

The lawsuit comes about a week after the first-term Republican governor objected to plans for refugees to arrive in Indiana following the Nov. 13 deadly attacks in Paris. Five days after the attacks, a family that fled war-torn Syria was diverted from Indianapolis to Connecticut when Pence ordered state agencies to halt resettlement activities.

"There is no border around the state of Indiana that prevents people from entering our state who may move freely within the United States," ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk said in a statement. "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."

Officials from Pence's office didn't immediately reply Tuesday to a request for comment from The Associated Press.

Pence said last week he was "deeply moved" by the refugees' plight but was concerned about militants possibly infiltrating the United States through the refugee program.

"We're very confident that we have the legal authority to suspend the resettlement program relative to Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana and I think it is the proper course," he said.

Religious groups criticize GOP anti-refugee rhetoric 02:16

More than half of the states in the U.S., most, like Indiana, with Republican governors, have objected to the arrival of the Syrian immigrants without assurances of proper security measures in place.

But individual states do not have the legal authority to block refugee placement. The Refugee Act of 1980 dictates that refugee resettlement is managed by the federal government, which consults with state refugee coordinators and the nine refugee resettlement agencies that have contracts with the government, but that consultation is largely to ensure the refugees are settled in cities with adequate jobs, housing and social services.

The Indiana Family and Social Services Administration sent letters last week to Exodus Refugee Immigration and Catholic Charities Indianapolis saying plans to accept two Syrian families should be halted.

Carleen Miller, Exodus Refugee's executive director, said she doesn't believe the state has the power to stop the resettlements but thought she had no choice last week but to find another place for the Syrian refugee family because of their imminent arrival.

Exodus has settled 892 refugees, including some from Syria, in the past fiscal year in Indiana, according to the ACLU. The group is projected to settle about the same number during 2016, including 19 Syrians approved for refugee status by the federal government and are expected to arrive in the next few weeks or months, the ACLU said.

Exodus receives federal money through the state's Office of Refugee Programs to assist in resettlement of federally approved and screened refugees. The money is used to assist with employment training, English language education and other services, according to the ACLU.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.