South Carolina Senate Backs Down on Bill to Defund Refugee Resettlement Program

COLUMBIA, S.C. (March 28, 2016) – Last week, the South Carolina Senate stripped a bill of provisions to defund state participation in some contentious federal refugee resettlement programs.

A coalition of seven senators introduced Senate Bill 997 (S.0997) on Jan. 14. The legislation would have generally banned state expenditures directly or indirectly benefiting a refugee placed in South Carolina under the Refugee Resettlement Program. The bill does allow for expenditures by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and local police to expend funds necessary to fulfill the obligations required of them by the provisions contained in this act.

S.0997 would require refugees to register with the state Department of Social Services within 30 days of entering South Carolina. The DSS would be required to notify SLED. Under the proposed law, state and local police would be required to “confirm that any refugees placed in South Carolina by the federal government pursuant to the Refugee Resettlement Program do not pose a public safety risk.”

After approving an amendment that stripped the defunding provisions from the bill, the Senate passed what is essentially now a refugee registration bill by a 39-6 margin.

As introduced, the legislation wouldn’t have actively interfered with federal resettlement of Middle Eastern Refugees, but it would stop any and all state funding for that purpose. Practically speaking, this would have made the resettlement in South Carolina much more difficult.

While two private voluntary agencies handle refugee reception and placement services in the state, but the South Carolina Department of Social Services runs a program to facilitate the federal refugee resettlement program.

“The Refugee Resettlement Program is established to help newly arriving population of refugees become self-sufficient in the shortest timeframe following their arrival in the United States. Refugees are individuals fleeing from persecution in their homelands who have been designated for resettlement elsewhere in the world. The Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) provides funds, policy and over-site; but services are administered by the state.”

The state program provides vital cash, medical and social service assistance. In other words, the federal government depends on significant state action to resettle refugees. Without state funding to operate this program, it would be difficult to successfully resettle refugees. Even Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress agrees, saying such policies would “potentially make settlement of refugees more difficult than it would be if the states cooperated.”

S.0997 restsed on a rock-solid legal foundation known as the anti-commandeering doctrine. The Supreme Court has consistently held that the federal government cannot force states to provide resources for, or assist in implementing, any federal acts or programs. The Supreme Court established this doctrine primarily through four cases dating all the way back Prigg v. Pennsylvania in 1842.

Some states have used the same legal principle to establish “sanctuary cities” to limit cooperation with ICE.

It remains unclear why the the Senate opted to register refugees instead of simply refusing to cooperate with resettlement.

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