The Perils and Possibilities of Refugee Federalism

63 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2017 Last revised: 25 Mar 2017

Stella Burch Elias

University of Iowa - College of Law

Date Written: 2016


The international community is experiencing a refugee crisis. The worldwide number of displaced persons has reached an all-time high. Refugees and asylum seekers, however, now face unprecedented levels of hostility and opposition to their resettlement in the United States. During the last three years, some states have been at the forefront of a movement to block the resettlement of refugees from the Middle East and asylum seekers from Central America in their jurisdictions. Other states have been in the vanguard of an initiative to welcome those fleeing persecution on humanitarian grounds. This Article explores this new phenomenon of “Refugee Federalism.” The Article examines recent state responses to the resettlement of certain groups of refugees and asylees, in particular Middle Eastern refugees and Central American asylees. The piece discusses some states’ attempts, through gubernatorial decrees, legislation, and litigation, to curtail the settlement of such refugees and asylees, as well as the countervailing movement by other states to support them. The Article analyzes the perils and possibilities of state engagement with refugee and asylee resettlement. It argues that, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s longstanding immigration federalism doctrine, states may not exclude refugees from their territories. But, it also proposes that states may nonetheless benefit from playing a more active role in refugee selection, admission, and integration.

Suggested Citation

Elias, Stella Burch, The Perils and Possibilities of Refugee Federalism (2016). American University Law Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, 2016; U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-21. Available at SSRN:

Stella Burch Elias (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States

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