By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
GREENBELT, Md. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday pressed a government lawyer to explain why President Donald Trump signed an executive order allowing state and local governments to reject refugees, questioning whether the change was politically motivated.
U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in Maryland didn’t immediately rule on a request by three national refugee resettlement agencies for a preliminary injunction stopping the Trump administration from enforcing the order.
During a hearing on the request, the judge said the president’s order essentially changed a federal law governing the resettlement of refugees.
“On what authority is the president acting?” Messitte asked Justice Department attorney Bradley Humphreys.
Humphreys said the 1980 Refugee Act gives the president “ample authority” to make such a change.
“Why change it now?” Messitte asked. “Is it purely a political thing?”
Humphreys said the executive order is designed to enhance the involvement of state and local officials in the process of resettling refugees. But he insisted it doesn’t give them a “veto” over resettlement decisions.
The Trump administration announced in November that resettlement agencies must get written consent from state and local officials in any jurisdiction where they want to help resettle refugees beyond June 2020.
The agencies argue the order illegally conflicts with the Refugee Act.
“These are difficult decisions,” plaintiffs’ attorney Melissa Keaney said. “Placing a family in the right location is critical, and Congress understood that.”
Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and HIAS — a Jewish nonprofit — filed the lawsuit in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 21. They are three of the nine national organizations agencies that have agreements with the federal government to provide housing and other services for refugees.
“They have been providing these resettlement services for decades,” plaintiffs’ attorney Justin Cox said.
Before Trump signed the executive order, state and local officials were given a voice but not a veto in deciding where refugees would be resettled, agency lawyers argue.
Trump’s order says the agencies were not working closely enough with local officials on resettling refugees and his administration acted to respect communities that believe they do not have the jobs or other resources to be able to take in refugees. Refugees have the right to move anywhere in the United States after their initial resettlement, but at their own expense.
The judge said he should issue a decision “pretty quickly.” He asked the attorneys to submit proposals for the scope of a preliminary injunction by Friday.
Associated Press reporter Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this story.
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