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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Misleading Attack on Martinez

Donald Trump took several verbal jabs at Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez after she declined to attend his rally in Albuquerque. But his criticism of her effort to keep Syrian refugees out of New Mexico was way off base.

Trump wrongly claimed that “Syrian refugees are being relocated in large numbers to New Mexico.” Only 10 Syrian refugees have been relocated to New Mexico while Martinez has served as governor.

Trump also missed the mark when he boasted that “if I was governor” the resettlement of Syrian refugees in New Mexico “wouldn’t be happening.” Governors have no legal authority to bar refugees from relocation to their state, as those who have tried found out. The resettlement process is guided by federal law.

Trump’s barbs at Martinez, who is chairwoman of the Republican Governors Association, came after the governor declined to attend Trump’s first New Mexico campaign event in Albuquerque on May 24. Martinez, the nation’s first Hispanic female governor, has criticized some of Trump’s immigration remarks and has, according to the Albuquerque Journal, been “noncommittal as to whether she will support him.”

According to the Journal, when asked why she was not attending, she said she was “really busy.” So in his speech, Trump took the opportunity to opine that Martinez is “not doing the job.”

Trump, May. 24: Now here’s a beauty that you’re gonna all love. Syrian refugees are being relocated in large numbers to New Mexico. If I was governor, that wouldn’t be happening. I couldn’t care less. They say the governors have no choice. If I’m governor, I have a choice, OK? Believe me.

For starters, there has not been a large number of Syrian refugees relocated to New Mexico.

According to statistics from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center, there have been 2,540 Syrian refugees relocated in the U.S. from the start of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 to May 24. Just four of them were relocated to New Mexico. Over that period, New Mexico ranked tied for 33rd among states in the number of Syrian refugees relocated.

In fact, over the entirety of Martinez’s term as governor, which began at the start of 2011, a total of 4,421 Syrian refugees arrived in the U.S., and just 10 of them were relocated in New Mexico.

“New Mexico is actually a state with very little refugee resettlement,” said Matthew Soerens, a spokesman for World Relief, one of the nine resettlement agencies that help to relocate refugees from all over the world in the U.S.

In other words, Trump’s claim that “large numbers” of Syrian refugees have been relocated to New Mexico under Martinez’s watch is wrong.

‘If I was governor, that wouldn’t be happening.’

Experts tell is Trump is also off base with his boast that as a governor he could have stopped Syrian refugees from entering his state.

The Refugee Act of 1980 “makes clear that the federal government has the responsibility for determining who is to be admitted as a refugee,” Soerens told us via email.

While more than 30 governors said last year that they oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states, and several vowed to prohibit it, none followed through or had any success.

For example, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an order in November that sought to stop the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state. Specifically, the executive order attempted to stop state agencies from being involved in accepting refugees.  But Deal later rescinded that order after the state’s Attorney General released an opinion in which he said he was “unaware of any law or agreement that would permit a state to carve out refugees from particular countries from participation in the refugee resettlement program, no matter how well-intended or justified the desire to carve out such refugees might be.”

“Accordingly, it is my official opinion that both federal law and the State’s agreement to act as the state refugee resettlement coordinator prevent the State from denying federally-funded benefits to Syrian refugees lawfully admitted into the United States,” Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens wrote.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also vowed to legally challenge the federal law, after announcing in November that his state would not accept any Syrian refugees. But a federal judge denied the Texas Attorney General’s request for a temporary injunction to block the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Texas.

“The Court does not deny that the Syrian refugees pose some risk. That would be foolish,” U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey wrote in February. “In our country, however, it is the federal executive that is charged with assessing and mitigating that risk, not the states and not the courts.”

As those cases make clear, Soerens said, “If Mr. Trump intends to abide by the law and submit to the authority of our court system, he would not have ‘a choice’ as governor to halt resettlement.”

Added Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies: “The law is pretty clear that the federal government has the power, once a refugee has been accepted, to resettle them anywhere in the U.S.”

And despite the rhetoric, threats and best efforts of some governors strongly opposed to resettlement of Syrian refugees, Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told us that “the U.S. refugee program has continued unabated.” She said, “The program [including for Syrian refugees] is proceeding as it always has. There has been no slow-down due to any of the statements or actions of any of the governors.” (You can read more about the resettlement process in a story we wrote in November debunking Trump’s claim that Syrian refugees are steered to Republican states.)

American University law professor Stephen I. Vladeck told us the governors’ bold prohibitions against accepting Syrian refugees in their states was “a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

“States have absolutely zero legal authority to refuse to allow refugees already admitted into the United States into their jurisdiction, specifically, regardless of their purported justification,” Vladeck told us via email. “And if a state is specifically barring refugees of particular national origin, race, or religious belief, then that policy is doubly unconstitutional — on both federalism and individual rights grounds.”

After Trump made his statements about Martinez, her press secretary Mike Lonergan, released a statement  saying that Martinez “will not be bullied into supporting a candidate until she is convinced that candidate will fight for New Mexicans.” Lonergan also noted that Martinez “has strongly opposed the President’s Syrian refugee plan.”

Last November, after the ISIS attacks in Paris, Martinez released a statement opposing President Obama’s plan to accept more Syrian refugees “until there is a very clear plan in place to properly vet and place the refugees, and the voices of governors and the public can be heard.” Martinez’s press office noted that Martinez’s position was criticized by the mayor of Santa Fe, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Trump campaign did not respond to our request for clarification of his comments. Trump may argue that he would have done more to try to stop relocation of Syrian refugees. But he can’t say “that wouldn’t be happening,” because the law and federal courts say otherwise.