Gov. Abbott Says No to Refugees

UPDATED: Texas first state to refuse refugees under new Trump policy

UPDATE Jan. 15 1:15 pm: A federal judge in Maryland has, at least temporarily, blocked enforcement of President Trump's executive order allowing Gov. Greg Abbott to refuse to consent to refugee resettlement. We'll have the latest on this story as it develops online and in this week's print issue.

Refugee children from Syria at a clinic in Ramtha, northern Jordan (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons by UK Department for International Development)

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott informed the U.S. State Department that Texas would not accept refugees for resettlement in 2020, under a new opt-out policy adopted by the Trump Administration. The governor said the state has been unduly burdened by a “broken federal immigration system.”

Texas becomes the first state to refuse to accept refugees fleeing persecution – as of last week, 42 other states, many governed by Republicans, had notified the feds they will continue to resettle refugees. The Christian humanitarian organization World Relief issued a statement saying in part: “We grieve the families with members already resettled in Texas that will have to wait even longer to be reunited, and we grieve even more for the loss our communities will experience without their new members.”

As defined by the United Nations Refugee Agency, “A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” All such refugees have to document the conditions that forced them to flee their homes, and all are thoroughly vetted by U.S. agencies.

In his letter to the State Department, Abbott acknowledged that Texas has historically welcomed refugees: “Since FY 2010, more refugees have been received in Texas than in any other state. In fact, over that decade, roughly 10% of all refugees resettled in the United States have been placed in Texas. Even today, the process of resettling continues for many of these refugees.”

Nevertheless, to justify his decision, Abbott cited general immigration concerns – not anything associated with refugees settled in Texas. He wrote, “Texas has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system.” His letter does not acknowledge – nor even mention – that the Trump Administration has been in charge of immigration matters for three years, and during that time has imposed and celebrated such policies as bans of Muslim immigrants and hyper-aggressive border enforcement. Instead, Abbott blames the alleged failure of immigration control on otherwise unspecified “Congress.” He also thanks other states for doing what Texas is now refusing to do – accept for resettlement people fleeing war and political or religious persecution.

Although most public reactions have condemned the governor’s decision, he retains support among some Republicans. U.S. Rep. Chip Roy (TX-21) echoed Abbott’s defense: “The federal government has utterly failed Texas, the nation, and immigrants,” Roy tweeted. “We endanger both Americans & immigrants when we continue w/ failed open borders.” State Rep. Matt Schaefer (HD 6) applauded Abbott’s “good decision”: “Thousands of people have been pouring over the TX border week after week, year after year,” he tweeted. “The same Fed Govt that asks us to receive more refugees has failed to address border security. … Non-border states can step up.”

Apparently, as these officials see it, the “Fed Govt” does not include the Trump Administration, which has not only enabled states to refuse refugees, but has annually lowered the national cap on refugee admissions – at a historic low of 18,000 for 2020, meaning fewer than 2,000 would possibly come to Texas.

Most of the reaction to Abbott's decision – from Democratic officials but also representatives of charitable organizations – has been negative. The following is a small sampling.

Bishop Joe Vasquez, Diocese of Austin: “I am deeply saddened by Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to block Texas from participating in the federal refugee settlement program. Along with my brother bishops of Texas, I respect the governor. Unfortunately, this decision denies people fleeing religious and political persecution the opportunity to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the common good.”

World Relief Fort Worth Director Troy Greisen: “We are disappointed that Governor Abbott has chosen to close the state’s doors to refugees in 2020. We have seen time and again the amazing contributions that refugees make in our neighborhoods, congregations and the local economy.”

Refugees International President Eric Schwartz: “Governor Abbot’s announcement that Texas will not accept refugees – in response to an executive order which itself is unconstitutional – reflects a lack of compassion and basic decency as well as a failure to recognize the substantial contributions that generations of new Americans have made not only to the United States but to the state of Texas.”

Texas Democratic Party Communications Director Abhi Rahman: “‘Texas’ means ‘friends.’ We are the friendship state. We help our neighbors. That’s what we do. Refugees are our neighbors. After suffering violence, war, and persecution, they filled out the necessary paperwork and were deemed eligible to move in. … We should be welcoming refugees to Texas, instead of ending a program that saves lives.”

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso: “I am appalled that Gov. Abbott has chosen to opt Texas out of the refugee resettlement program. Providing shelter is a core tenet of many religious faiths and the fundamental basis on which our country was founded.… Like many Republican governors who have chosen to continue accepting refugees in their respective states, Gov. Abbott should honor our country's welcoming legacy instead of turning his back on those in need.”

State Rep. Vikki Goodwin (HD 47): "I’m deeply disappointed in Governor Abbott’s decision to opt out of the refugee resettlement program. An unprecedented amount of people are experiencing displacement in today’s world due to political and economic instability and conflict, and we should welcome them to Texas with open arms. With the strength of our economy and our people, we have ample resources to help refugees – it is our moral obligation to do so."

Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service: ”This is a deeply disappointing decision – although not surprising given Texas' previous but unsuccessful opposition to refugee resettlement a few years ago. This is precisely why we filed a lawsuit against President Trump's unlawful executive order, and we are confident that justice will be served.”

In November, LIRS, Church World Service, and HIAS (a Jewish nonprofit that aids refugees) filed a federal lawsuit opposing the Trump Administration’s change in policy. A decision on a preliminary injunction is pending.

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