In the wake of the Paris attacks, Governor Abbott has issued a press release stating that Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria, a common position among U.S. governors. His statement invites three questions: can governors do that; what can governors do; and what should governors do?
The answer to the first question is “No.” The Constitution reserves foreign policy powers to the President and the Senate, and federal laws allow the President to admit refugees. Once a refugee is admitted into the U.S., the Constitution guarantees free movement, and the fourteenth amendment and federal law prohibit targeting based on national origin. If the Syrian is a refugee as defined by international law, federal treaties are one more reason a State cannot resist. For example, many Syrians could be religious refugees with a treaty right to remain in the U.S. because of the monstrosity of groups like ISIL.
The answer to the second question is that a State can either cooperate or not. A State cannot actively usurp a federal power created by the Constitution, but the State is not required to offer its resources to assist federal policy.
The first two answers are easy; the third answer is hard. I believe that the world, including our Muslim brethren, is locked in a struggle with extremism, and I believe that liberty, more than anything else we could do, is the answer. Abbott justifies his press release on the premise that Syrians, as a group, pose a danger. But we can value individuals; we can treasure liberty. In the words of the French Resistance philosopher Albert Camus, I want my State to be part of offering these plague-stricken people some refuge against the injustices and outrage done to them, “and to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”