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Judge: Indiana can't withhold Syrian refugee aid

Indiana Gov.Mike Pence

A federal judge in Indianapolis on Monday blocked Republican Gov. Mike Pence's order that barred state agencies from helping Syrian refugees resettle in Indiana, saying the governor's directive "clearly discriminates" against refugees from the war-torn country.

The ruling grants a request for a preliminary injunction from Exodus Refugee Immigration, which helps resettle refugees in Indiana. The group sued shortly after Pence issued his order in November, saying the change would hurt aid groups by withholding reimbursements for housing and medical care to assist Syrian refugees.

Exodus and other organizations have continued to resettle Syrian refugees, though the state has sought to withhold funds earmarked for resettlements. Four Syrian refugees were settled in January, with Exodus planning to settle nearly 200 more this year, Monday's opinion said.

More than two dozen states, most with Republican governors, have taken similar action to suspend Syrian resettlement programs.

Pence released a statement saying he stood by his decision and would quickly appeal. The governor has repeatedly cited the November attacks in Paris as justification, noting that a passport found near one of the suicide bombers had been registered along the route asylum seekers from Syria were taking through Europe.

CBS Indianapolis affiliate WTTV reports the state Democratic Party said the ruling "not only affirms Mike Pence is an ideologue, but also that he is not in touch with how Hoosiers feel about important issues affecting our state. Indiana needs a governor who will put commonsense and 'The Golden Rule' first - and not issues that only divide our state. This person is clearly not Mike Pence."

In her 36-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt said the state had a compelling concern to protect its residents, but that withholding federal grant money from the aid group "in no way furthers the state's asserted interest in the safety of Indiana residents."

Pratt also wrote that the governor's directive "clearly discriminates against Syrian refugees based on their national origin."

Similar lawsuits have been filed in Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania, according to the judge's ruling. An attorney for the Indiana plaintiffs, Kenneth Falk, said he believes Pratt's ruling is the first action taken by a judge in such a case.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the refugee group by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, said the state was violating the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act by accepting refugees from other countries but not from Syria. At the time, the group said it expected to settle about 19 Syrians vetted by the federal government within the next several months.

According to WTTV, the state ACLU said Pratt's decision "puts the brakes on Governor Pence's end run around the Constitution. No state can unilaterally ban a group of refugees that has been vetted and admitted by the federal government.

Pratt said she granted the preliminary injunction because she believed the plaintiffs would eventually prevail in their lawsuit.

The judge said the state had acknowledged it doesn't have the authority to bar Syrian refugees from crossing into Indiana after the U.S. government already gave them a green light to enter the country. But she said the aim of yanking funding from groups like Exodus was to achieve the same result.

"The State deprives Syrian refugees that are already in Indiana of social services in the hopes that it will deter (voluntary agencies) from resettling other Syrian refugees in the State," she wrote. "This is essentially a policy of punishing Syrian refugees already in Indiana in the hopes that no more will come."

Pratt added that the state's decision to not pass on funds to Exodus would mean the group might be forced to cut funding to other refugee clients - not just those from Syria.