Pence Has No Authority to Refuse Syrian Refugees: So Why Did He?

The Campus Citizen takes a closer look at Gov. Pence’s recent refugee decision. An IUPUI professor of politics, an IUPUI adjunct professor of international media and a past refugee student weigh in on the matter.

After the statewide debacle that was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana’s elected officials have once again revealed to the world just how unwelcoming the “Crossroads of America” can be.

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News broke of Gov. Pence’s decision to suspend “placement” of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terror attacks on Nov. 24, one day before a Syrian family of three was due to arrive in their new home state — Indiana. After receiving their notice of rejection from the Hoosier state, the family found open arms in Connecticut when Gov. Dannel Malloy encouraged them to settle in his home state.

In the aftermath of Pence’s declaration, proponents on both sides of the of the issue have become more vocal . But opinions aside, one fact remains unquestionably true of Pence’s decision: he can’t do it.

“The decision rests on a notion that state governments have the authority to decide who can and cannot live within the state,” said Professor William Blomquist, IUPUI professor of political science. “And, they don’t. State governments do not have that authority.”

Prof. Blomquist has taught courses in local and state law during his time at IUPUI. He went on to explain the situation as a possible gut reaction.

“The thing about these kinds of cases and questions are that they don’t prevent actions from happening, but they cause actions. Once that decision is made and then applied, then you get the question about whether that was a decision that was properly taken,” said Prof. Blomquist.

If this is true, Pence’s decision represents a dangerous use of political logic: act first, correct later. This rush to act came at the cost of rerouting a family’s entire life, and perhaps worse, sending a resounding message to the world that Indiana will not bet be taking “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”


But the decision has raised some questions that still haven’t been answered.. According to the American legal system, Pence cannot in fact stop a family of refugees from entering the state. So how do we interpret this action? Why make a statement he can’t fulfill?

Prof. Blomquist described the action as being possibly political, possibly based on genuine safety concerns, or “some combination of the two”.

Others prefer to not straddle the line. Kiel Majewski, an adjunct professor teaching international media at IUPUI, called the decision a “cynical political act.”

“No serious rational basis exists for scapegoating the world's most vulnerable people as potential terrorists. Politicians like Pence are sowing the seeds of fear and division,” said Majewski.

Majewski recently published an opinion piece on the topic in the Tribune Star (read that here). As a professional and personal advocator for human rights, Majewski also acts as executive director of CANDLES Holocaust Museum.

“During my time in human rights advocacy, I have never even encountered a refusal of refugees,” said Majewksi. “Indiana in particular is home to many Burmese, Congolese, Sudanese, and Rwandan people. In the long run, accepting refugees has actually proven to be a tremendously good investment for America.”

As Majewski lays out in his piece, the stats are on his side. And he’s not the only one frustrated. Shwan Al-kirowi, a freshman at IUPUI, has an even more personal tie to the issue.

Though not from Syria, his family were once refugees themselves. As the second gulf war kicked off, Al-kirowi’s family was forced to flee their hometown of Baghdad and move to Northern Iraq. They eventually gained refugee status and moved to the U.S. in 2010.

“When the war started, and America stepped in, there were bombs all over Baghdad. They were so close that it broke the glass and shook our house,” said Al-kirowi. “Kidnappings were happening a lot too. My parents couldn’t take it anymore.”

His family was fortunate. Al-kirowi’s father had worked in local security for the U.S. army, so making international contacts came easier. Though the process was lengthy, they were able to move to the U.S. about a year after the decision was made to leave Iraq.

But for many the process isn’t so smooth. The process length for obtaining visas has steadily increased since then, and with more than half of American governors opposing the admittance of Syrian refugees, the waiting period shows no sign of improvement.

Al-kirowi said he couldn’t help but feel slighted by the decision.

“When i first saw that, I was really disgusted, like with how much people agreed with that,” said Al-kirowi. “We’re all humans. We all want the same thing: a nice life, a future for our children and a safe place to live. We’re just from different cultures.”

He paused slightly, then continued.

“If I stayed in Iraq I might be dead. We don’t want that for our children.”


In the midst of the Syrian conflict and the explosion of refugees, drawing a direct parallel between Al-kirowi’s experience and the current situation would be misleading in some ways. However, as a family of Muslims, Al-kirowi and his parents have experienced their share of the same islamophobic rhetoric that has played a part in these immigration decisions.

After receiving suspicious looks in job interviews, Al-kirowi’s father Muhammed abbreviated his name to Mo in hopes of finding work sooner. Al-kirowi’s mother used to wear a traditional hijab, but has since stopped the practice to avoid a “certain look” that people would give her.

“We had to remove our culture,” Al-kirowi said. “I’m still Muslim, and I’m proud of that, but there are certain things we had to do to fit in.”

Despite feeling forced to “fit in,” Al-kirowi and his family still consider America to be one of the safest and greatest nations in the world. But for any future refugees, Indiana has joined the 30 other states who have placed a halt on resettling some of the world’s most persecuted peoples.

Pence’s decision has already brought tangible consequences. The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Nov. 23 that it filed a lawsuit against Pence for his actions. While Pence cannot technically refuse refugees, he may be able to refuse essential services such as English courses and job training. But even then, a constitutional conflict might strip this authority.

“Within limits it could be within his authority, but even that would raise some equal protection challenges,” said Prof. Blomquist.

Despite making contacts and friends months before arriving, their hopes of residing in Indiana have long been abandoned. Indiana is no longer their planned destination, and in the wake of Pence’s decision, no one can blame them. For the Syrian family who was turned away, Connecticut is now home. 

Update: 6:29 pm article misspelt Shwan Al-kirowi as Shawd Akirowi