Legal expert says governors cannot restrict Syrian refugees from entering their states

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

Governors from 31 states around the country — including Gov. Bruce Rauner — have announced suspensions of the admission of Syrian refugees prompted by the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed at least 129 people.

A statement issued by Rauner on Monday pointed to finding “a way to balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens” and said the state will consider all legal options “pending a full review of our country’s acceptance and security processes by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.”

The statement echoes similar concerns by the governors of other states around the country.


Human rights advocacy groups and some members of the media have criticized governors for suspending programs on the grounds that possible terrorists may enter the country masquerading as Syrian refugees. As of Wednesday, all of the Paris attackers have been identified as European nationals, according to European Union officials.

But Cindy Buys, a professor at SIUC who specializes in immigration law, says governors do not have the legal ability to close their borders to Syrian refugees.

While federal law empowers governors with the responsibility of administering refugee programs in their respective states, the United States Refugee Act of 1980 designates the president with making determinations regarding the number of refugees who may enter the country.

Since the governors of the 19 remaining states have said they will accept Syrian refugees, Buys said there is not much Rauner or other state governors can do to prevent refugees from entering Illinois without a national uniform policy.

“It’s not very effective for individual governors to say ‘I don’t want them in my state because they can settle next door in another state and come into Illinois anyway,” Buys said.

A Syrian family of five moved to Chicago on Wednesday with assistance from Exodus World Service, a non-profit organization based in Bloomington, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Rauner’s policy inspired activist Cheyanne Lovellette, a graduate student in linguistics, to launch a petition asking fellow Illinoisans to support Syrian refugees who wish to move to the state. 


“As a citizen of the United States and specifically the state of Illinois, I believe Gov. Rauner’s statement goes against the very essence of who we are as a state and as a nation,” Lovellette wrote on the webpage. “I do not support Gov. Rauner’s decision to speak for the people of Illinois on this issue with such fear and hatred.”

Bill Lukitsch can be reached at 536-3329, at [email protected] or on Twitter @Bill_LukitschDE .