NIU law professors: Governors have no standing to deny Syrian refugees

DeKALB – A panel of Northern Illinois University law school professors said Gov. Bruce Rauner and other governors in the U.S. don’t have the law on their side in their call to halt Syrian refugees looking to resettle in their state.

Rauner announced Nov. 16 that Illinois temporarily would suspend accepting new refugees from the embattled nation, and will look at Department of Homeland Security rules on the issue. At least 12 other governors – mostly Republicans – have made similar moves.

“We must find a way to balance our tradition as a state welcoming of refugees while ensuring the safety and security of our citizens,” Rauner said.

But NIU associate law professors Robert Jones, Anita Maddali and Marc Falkoff said at a panel discussion held Tuesday at the university that when refugees are accepted into the country, for the most part, the law allows them to move about – and take up state residency – freely.

The associate professors called the governors’ actions political showboating.

“What makes it grandstanding is that the governor’s implicit assertion is wrong as a matter of constitutional law. It’s silly in practical terms,” said Falkoff, who also is acting associate dean of the NIU College of Law. He has represented suspected terrorists imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

The panel was held in the Francis Riley Courtroom, and third-year NIU law student Matthew Flores helped to coordinate it.

He was concerned that average citizens likely didn’t know Rauner and other governors legally couldn’t do what they announced.

“It’s really infuriating that the people in power don’t seem to understand the limits of their own power,” Flores said. “And it’s kind of infuriating that the people who put them [in office] don’t see that how [some elected officials] act isn’t representative of what their abilities are.”

The gubernatorial leaders made the comments after the Nov. 13 terrorists attacks in Paris killed 130 people. The Islamic State terror group in Syria claimed responsibility for the attack, and investigators believe at least one of the attackers entered France through Belgium, where he arrived amid an influx of Syrians fleeing their homeland.

Maddali compared the fear about Syrian refugees to the fear that permeated more than 50 years ago when Jews were fleeing Nazis in Germany.

She said the U.S. was among the nations that turned some Jews away. But born from that global debacle, she said, was the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which helps protect refugees.

“We continue to want to prohibit [refugees’] admission,” said Maddali, who also teaches immigration law. “There is a recognition that unless we create some sort of legal backing, it’s going to be too easy for the same thing to keep happening over and over again.”

There are about 86,000 Syrian immigrants in the U.S., and 2,261 of them are refugees, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Students were curious to know what happens to Syrians and other refugees once they’re in the country. Second-year NIU law student Stephanie Wiggins asked whether the refugee status could put them on a path to citizenship.

Maddali said refugees can apply for a green card, which establishes permanent residency, after being in the country for a year. After five years, the individual can apply for citizenship, she said. If the federal government discovers a person has been arrested or involved in other criminal activity, they can be deported or denied citizenship.

“Each time you try to change your status, it’s almost like knocking on the door again. And the government reviews everything all over again,” Maddali said. “Once you’re a citizen, that changes.”

Professors referenced a report by the Migration Policy Institute that found of 784,000 overseas refugees who have come to the U.S. since 2001, three have been accused of terrorism-related activities.

“Terror in the U.S. has been mostly homegrown,” Falkoff said.