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Texas ‘full’ and declining to admit any more refugees, Gov. Greg Abbott says

Gov. Greg Abbott at a bill-signing ceremony in June. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman/TNS)

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday said that Texas will not accept any more refugees for initial resettlement this year.

Abbott said Texas bears a “disproportionate” burden from illegal immigration and must concentrate the resources it and its nonprofits have on the needy already here – “refugees, migrants and the homeless – indeed, all Texans.”

Under a new Trump administration requirement, state and local elected officials must consent in writing before refugees can be resettled. By saying Texas won’t participate, Abbott effectively overrode recent letters by leaders of Dallas and other major Texas cities opting in.

He also made Texas the first state to decline resettlement under President Donald Trump’s executive order creating state and local vetoes.

In his letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abbott stressed his action does not “preclude a refugee from later coming to Texas after initially settling in another state.”

Nearly all states, including many led by Republican governors, have agreed to take part in refugees’ initial resettlement for the rest of the current federal budget year.

Thus, “This decision does not deny any refugee access to the United States,” Abbott emphasized.

A Texas Democratic Party spokesman condemned Abbott’s move.

“We should be welcoming refugees to Texas, instead of ending a program that saves lives,” Abhi Rahman said in a written statement. “Refugees are not political pawns and bargaining chips to advance anti-immigrant policies. We cannot let Republican racism overpower our love and compassion for our brothers and sisters fleeing violence.”

Abbott spokesmen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Many refugee advocates were disappointed.

“Nearly 2,500 refugees started to rebuild their lives in Texas last year, many of whom have additional family members in harm’s way seeking to join them in safety,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive of the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It’s one of nine agencies with State Department contracts to assist in refugee resettlement.

“These families have been torn apart by violence, war and persecution – but we never thought they would be needlessly separated by a U.S. state official,” she said in a written statement.

“The governor’s decision unfortunately disregards the desire of so many of the religious communities we’ve worked closely with in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and beyond, to live out their faith.”

Governors in 42 other states have consented to continuing to allow in more refugees, according to the advocacy group Refugees International.

“Of them, 18 are Republicans,” said Sarah Sheffer, the group’s spokeswoman, “which has been a very welcome indication that this decision is something that Americans want in their communities.”

Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham, though, cheered Abbott’s decision, retweeting a news story about it with the hashtag “America First.”

Abbott, who in 2015 sought to block Syrians from coming to Texas after a terrorist attack in Paris, argued at the time that the federal government did not have adequate information to conduct proper security checks.

On Friday, as he told Pompeo that Texas would opt out, the Republican governor didn’t cite security concerns about the refugees. Rather, he suggested the resources of the state and its nonprofit organizations are exhausted.

“Texas has carried more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process and appreciates that other states are available to help with these efforts,” he wrote.

“Texas is one of the most welcoming states for refugees to escape dangers abroad,” Abbott said. Since the 2010 federal fiscal year, “more refugees have been received in Texas than in any other state,” he said.

However, “In addition to accepting refugees all these years, Texas has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system.” He then ticked off numbers of migrants detained at the Texas-Mexico border, and numbers of countries they were from, in the past year or so.

Last fiscal year, about 851,000 immigrants were apprehended at the U.S. border, a doubling of apprehensions from fiscal 2018, according to government statistics. In the last three months, apprehensions have been decreasing further at a pace similar to 2018.

In late September, Trump sharply reduced the number of refugees who’d be allowed to resettle in the U.S. to 18,000, down from 30,000 in fiscal 2019. Former President Barack Obama set the ceiling at 110,000 refugees in the final months of his administration.

In Dallas at the time, some refugees expressed relief they’d already made it into the U.S., while others said they fear for those left behind in their home countries.

Texas, with a low unemployment rate, has often led the nation in refugee resettlement.

In the last five years, the top homelands for refugee resettlement into North Texas have been Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq.

This fiscal year, though, the states of Washington and California outpaced Texas in refugee resettlement. Nationally, 3,349 refugees were resettled through this week and 264 came into Texas, according to State Department data. Nearly, 360 settled in Washington state and about 310 in California.

Global displacement has reached record highs. In 2018, nearly 71 million people were displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of that total, nearly 26 million were refugees.

At Refugee Services of Texas, CEO Russell Smith said his staff was “deeply saddened and disappointed” by the governor’s decision.

“This devastating decision reflects an ongoing confusion between illegal immigration and border security and the American refugee resettlement program — which entails by far the most stringent vetting process in the world,” Smith said in a written statement.

At the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee, executive director Suzy Cop called Abbott’s decision “as shameful as it is out of touch” with other states’ decisions, Texas’ welcoming tradition and the business community’s need for workers. She noted that refugees can still move around the country once they are resettled, despite Trump’s offering of the “opt out” option for states.

“What it will mean is added stress for families and communities, who will now lack federal funding, and the resettlement expertise that helps ensure refugees can get a job, start a business or buy a home,” she said.


© 2020 The Dallas Morning News