Faith leaders and members of human rights groups wearing a life vests symbolizing the life-saving program are arrested by U.S. Capitol police last October during a protest calling on Congress not to end the refugee resettlement program.
Faith leaders and members of human rights groups wearing a life vests symbolizing the life-saving program are arrested by U.S. Capitol police last October during a protest calling on Congress not to end the refugee resettlement program. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

We rang in the New Year with some good news: Gov. Larry Hogan announced he had written a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying that Maryland would continue resettling refugees.

Gov. Hogan’s letter was spurred by a recent presidential executive order that requires governors and local leaders to affirmatively state whether they will continue to resettle refugees in their jurisdictions. Mr. Hogan was the 39th governor to publicly declare support for refugee resettlement, and many in Maryland — including the organization I lead, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service — had been waiting anxiously for his response.


Gov. Hogan did the right thing. And his decision, like those of so many other governors, gives us hope that America can continue to be a welcoming community.

The president’s executive order, however, is simply illegal and unconstitutional — and that’s why, this week, we went to court.

In November, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration regarding the very executive order that Gov. Hogan just responded to, and oral arguments were heard Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

The gist of the case is this: The president’s executive order undermines the Refugee Act of 1980, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and made the U.S. the global leader in providing protection to the most vulnerable and deserving. The act established clear rules for state and federal cooperation on refugee resettlement, including allowing states to opt-out of the program. This doesn’t mean states can block resettlement. Instead, private nonprofit organizations handle all services the state would normally deliver.

In proposing to give state and local leaders the unprecedented ability to block refugee resettlement, the Trump administration is both violating the plain text of the Refugee Act of 1980 and trampling upon Congress’ constitutionally enumerated power to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.”

This recent executive order is merely the administration’s latest attempt to erect additional roadblocks to curb refugee resettlement. For 2020, the refugee admissions ceiling will be 18,000 —the lowest admissions number at any time in the past four decades. Even more troubling, that cap does not mean that many are guaranteed admission. In 2018, for example, the cap was 45,000, and only 22,491 were resettled in the U.S. And this shift is occurring at a time of unprecedented global need with more than 70 million people displaced last year by warfare, religious persecution and environmental disasters.

Yet we see a bright silver lining. As the federal government steps away from our nation’s legacy of embracing refugees, we are witnessing an unprecedented outpouring of local support for refugee resettlement from sea to shining sea. As of Jan. 7, 40 state governors and 86 local governments have publicly stated their desire to continue accepting refugees. These communities represent the full diversity of America — from urban to rural, conservative to progressive. Neighbors are coming together, sifting fact from fiction, and deciding to welcome refugees.

While immigration in Washington is often portrayed as a fiercely partisan issue, in the rest of the country, the reality is much more bipartisan: Nearly equal numbers of Republican and Democratic governors have pledged to continue accepting refugees. The reasons may range from economic self-interest to ideological commitment to inclusion, but these pragmatic leaders are all reaching the same conclusion as President Ronald Reagan, who accepted the highest number of refugee admissions of any U.S. president — that immigrants contribute to America’s greatness.

As the leader of one of the country’s largest faith-based nonprofits, which works with religious communities in every state — and as someone who, as a 9 month-old, fled violence and persecution in Sri Lanka with my parents and brother to find refuge in a welcoming America — I’m heartened by this display of grace and solidarity from states and localities. At a time of unprecedented political divisiveness in Washington, D.C., particularly in the rhetorical rancor around immigration, these consent decisions in favor of refugees represent the values ordinary Americans have long held in their hearts and their unwavering commitment to ensuring that Lady Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden doors.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah (KVignarajah@lirs.org) is president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (Twitter: @LIRSorg). She previously served in the Obama White House as policy director for first lady Michelle Obama and at the State Department as senior advisor under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry.