POLITICS
09/21/2016 06:04 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Texas Can't Legally Keep Out Refugees, So It Quit A Program That Helps Them

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott initially tried to block Syrian refugees entirely.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been fighting against Syrian refugees coming to his state for nearly a year.
LM Otero/Associated Press
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been fighting against Syrian refugees coming to his state for nearly a year.

Texas will quit helping to resettle refugees because the federal government did not meet the state’s demands on security, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced Friday, after initially threatening to do so last week.

It was Abbott’s latest attempt to keep Syrian refugees out of his state, but like his past efforts, there’s one major problem here: Texas cannot actually block refugees from the state.

The Texas government can refuse to help with the process, however ― a dramatic move from a state that welcomed more refugees this fiscal year than any other state in the nation.

On Sept. 21, Abbott said the state would withdraw from the program if the government declined a request for more extensive assurances that each refugee is not a security threat.

“Despite multiple requests by the State of Texas, the federal government lacks the capability or the will to distinguish the dangerous from the harmless, and Texas will not be an accomplice to such dereliction of duty to the American people,” Abbott said in a statement last week.

The governor has been one of the chief proponents of the argument that refugee screening is insufficient, and in particular opposes allowing Syrians to come to the United States. Last November, amid a revolt from half of the nation’s governors over Syrian refugee resettlement, Abbott wrote to President Barack Obama to say Texas would not accept anyone from the country. Since then, Abbott has repeatedly tried to keep out Syrian refugees, only to be thwarted in the courts.

A Texas official told the Office of Refugee Resettlement in August that the state would not allow refugees “without assurances from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence that the refugees do not pose a security threat to our citizens.”

Another state official wrote to the federal government earlier this month that the state would withdraw from the program if the federal government does not agree by the end of the month. The state followed through on the promise on Friday.

“As governor, I will continue to prioritize the safety of all Texans and urge the federal government to overhaul this severely broken system,” Abbott said in a statement on Friday.

Its participation will officially end 120 days later. A nonprofit or group of nonprofits will then be put in charge of leading resettlement in the state. 

Governor Abbott’s plan to withdraw the state from the federal refugee resettlement program is completely out of touch with Texas values. Donna Duvin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Dallas

A spokeswoman for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement confirmed last week that the agency will continue to place refugees in Texas, and said that all individuals provided services complete “stringent security screenings.” The spokeswoman said “ORR and its federal partners across the administration are working with states to ensure that all refugees and entrants have access to the critical supports needed to help them rebuild their lives in the United States while continuing to protect the safety and security of communities.”

Two other Republicans governors, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Sam Brownback of Kansas, also withdrew from the federal refugee program earlier this year. But Texas has a far larger resettlement program ― more than 6,700 refugees moved into Texas from October 2015 to the end of August 2016, compared to 453 in New Jersey and 766 in Kansas. A majority of the refugees Texas welcomed since October were from Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. Nearly 800 were from Syria, most of them in families.

Abbott has argued that Syrian refugees could be a terrorist threat, a position shared by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. His son, Donald Trump Jr., landed in hot water last week for comparing refugees to Skittles and vastly overstating the number of refugees who have been involved in terrorism.

“While many refugees pose no danger, some pose grave danger,” Abbott said in his Sept. 21 statement, citing the arrest in January of an Iraqi man who came to the U.S. as a refugee in 2009 and was accused of planning to bomb malls in Houston.

“Empathy must be balanced with security,” Abbott said.

All refugees go through a vetting process that includes in-person interviews and biometric screening, with help from multiple intelligence agencies. While vetting Syrians is difficult given instability in the country, the system has improved significantly, according to FBI Director James Comey. Thus far, there is no evidence that any terrorists have gotten into the U.S. through the Syrian refugee program, which has resettled more than 10,000 people this fiscal year, a majority of them under age 18.

Refugee resettlement organizations, which carry out much of the day-to-day work of helping people find homes and jobs, enroll their children in school and more, were dismayed last week by Abbott’s announcement.

“Governor Abbott’s plan to withdraw the state from the federal refugee resettlement program is completely out of touch with Texas values,” Donna Duvin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Dallas, said in a statement.

“While the governor scapegoats innocent families, Texans continue to open their arms to welcome refugees in need,” she said.

This article was updated on Sept. 30 to reflect Texas’ official withdrawal from the federal refugee resettlement program.

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