Groups that aid refugees fight to block Trump restrictions in federal court

Jen Berile, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Missoula, and Nolasque Balitebya, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, listen to a resettlement hearing with Missoula County commissioners last month. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

GREENBELT, Md. (CN) — A federal judge grilled the government’s lawyer on Wednesday to justify an executive order that gives states the option to turn immigrants away.

“On what authority is the president acting?” U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte asked Justice Department attorney Bradley Humphreys, saying the challengers could win an injunction if they prove the act was unlawful.

President Donald Trump made the change in September 2019, forbidding resettlement agencies from moving any displaced individuals without the express consent of relevant states and local governments.

Gov. Steve Bullock, Missoula Mayor John Engen and Missoula County Commissioners have issued that consent for Missoula’s resettlement program. Agencies like the International Rescue Committee must document such permission to the government by Jan. 21 or lose federal funding.

Melissa Keaney, an attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project, argued before Messitte in Maryland on Wednesday that Trump injected a new standard to the requirements for individuals entering the country under the Refugee Act of 1980.

Congress had outlined myriad stipulations for resettlement, including implementing strategies and policies to aid refugees’ transition to the country, and Keaney said the new state-consultation requirements require resettlement agencies to consider something the Refugee Act had intentionally excluded.

“Placing that family in the right position is critical and Congress considered that,” Keaney said.

Keaney’s co-counsel Justin Cox argued before the court as well, saying Trump’s order also violated a portion of the Administrative Procedures Act that requires the government to show its action is supported by a rational determination.

Because the government likewise did not give resettlement agencies an opportunity to respond to the order, Cox said it also violating a portion of the act that requires an open comment period.

Justice Department attorney Humphreys argued that agency decisions like this are exempt, saying government would to a halt if it needed an open comment period for every grant decision.

Linda Evarts, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, told Judge Messitte that the executive order would cause irreparable harm, saying the order will keep resettlement agencies fulfilling even more basic duties such as facilitating language services or even groceries for new arrivals to the country.

Messitte meanwhile brought up that the program had weathered cuts before without dramatic impact, asking Evarts to explain how a reduction of staff and other resources would cause dramatically harm.

Evarts said it would cause agencies to lose their very livelihood.

“The point is the same: the resettlement agencies have spent decades building these local relationships,” Evarts said.

More than 50 people of gathered outside the Baltimore courthouse Wednesday to protest in support of the three resettlement agencies behind the suit: Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and Hebrew Immigrant and Aid Society.

“We’re here today because we used to help refugees because they were Jewish, but today we help refugees because we are Jewish,” Mark Hetfield, president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said at a press conference after arguments. “The American-Jewish community remembers a time when Jews were banned from certain neighborhoods by local covenants … and what this is, is the same kind of discrimination and segregation on a much larger scale.”