Abbott’s Refugee Ban Concerns Dallas Organizations

Derek Jensen (Tysto) via WikiCommons
Texas' Greg Abbott became the first governor to reject refugees under an executive order that requires state governors to opt in to refugee resettlement.
Gov. Greg Abbott's decision last week to reject all new refugees to the state of Texas has left Dallas area refugee and immigrant organizations confused and frustrated but committed to reversing the decision.

“We're in the largest refugee crisis since the Holocaust, and in response to that our country is resettling the lowest number of refugees since refugee resettlement. And we are opting out,” said Bill Holston, executive director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

Under an executive order from President Donald Trump, states must opt in to the country's national refugee resettlement program, or lose funding. So far, more than 40 governors have indicated that they will continue to participate in the program. Texas is the first state to say no.

But Abbott's reasons, which he outlined in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including a large number of immigrants crossing the border from Mexico and the many refugees already in Texas, fell flat for Holston.

"I think the biggest thing that I struggle with, is that it's framed as this scarcity,” he said. “He comes to it from a perspective of lack of resources rather than net gain.”

Besides, immigration and refugee resettlement are two completely different issues and shouldn’t be conflated, Holston said.

In 2015, Texas was home to about 177,000 refugees, according to the bipartisan research and advocacy group New American Economy. Before Abbott's decision, Texas resettled 9% of all refugees coming to the United States, Migration Policy Institute data shows.

Those refugees contribute invaluably to the Texas economy, and rejecting new refugees will hurt the Texas economy and doesn’t align with Texas values, said Mark Hagar, Dallas director for the Refugee Services of Texas. The organization is one of several Dallas nonprofits that offer resettlement assistance, legal services, and language and cultural help for refugees.

“It's not who we are as a state, and it's not who we are as a nation,” Hagar said.

Refugees tend to be hard-working and bring a lot of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation to the country, Hagar said. According to New American Economy statistics, in 2015 Texas refugees held a combined $4.6 billion spending power and paid $422 million in state and local taxes and $1.2 billion in federal taxes.

“We're in the largest refugee crisis since the Holocaust, and in response to that our country is resettling the lowest number of refugees since refugee resettlement. And we are opting out.” — Bill Holston

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“They're grateful to have a safe place, and that translates to their commitment to the country that resettled them,” Hagar said.

This makes sense, said Holston, who notes that refugees who arrive in the United States usually have already fled their home countries, spent years in refugee camps and temporary housing, and traveled to the U.S. to settle permanently. They're tenacious and eager to contribute to their new country.

Although refugees require assistance early on, they quickly adjust to their new lives, become independent and start paying back into the economy, Holston said. Children who come as refugees excel in school, too, he said.

Last year, Trump set the annual refugee cap for the country at the lowest it's been in 40 years, since the 1980 Refugee Act, which established a system for accepting refugees in accordance with global need. Each year, the president decides how many refugees the country will allow in. This year, Trump said the country will allow 18,000 for the 2020 fiscal year, 12,000 fewer than for the 2019 fiscal year, according to the Pew Research Center.

At the time, Holston called the low cap a fundamental betrayal of the country's values.

“Part of our identity as a country is that we've been a refuge for persecuted people … since the 18th century,” Holston said. “It's hard to imagine our city without the impact of refugees.”

He's concerned the new rule will hurt local refugee agencies and that the city will miss out on new cultural and economic input from refugees.

In the short term, the order will require Refugee Services of Texas to focus more on their human-trafficking victim support and asylum-seeker programs. But in the long run, Hagar is dedicated to working with other area organizations to encourage Abbott to change his mind.

“The main message is that we’re urging the governor to reverse his decision,” Hagar said.

Ultimately, refugees are still allowed to move to Texas, but they cannot be initially resettled here because of Abbott's decision. Hagar worries that refugees will be sent to other states but move to Texas to be with family. Those who do come will be forgoing support, because Texas organizations will not have funding for refugee resettlement services.

Since Abbott's announcement, faith and community organizations have spoken against the decision, declaring rejecting refugees to be contradictory to tenets of religious belief and Texas values.

“It denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans,” wrote the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops in a statement.

The conference, which is made up of 15 bishops from around the state, spoke in unified opposition of refugee rejection.

“The refugees who have already resettled in Texas have made our communities even more vibrant. As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien,” the statement reads in part.

Hagar sees some hope in a lawsuit recently filed, challenging the original executive order that required states to opt in to continuing refugee resettlement. Last year, three national resettlement agencies filed the lawsuit seeking to block the executive order. Arguments for a preliminary injunction against the order were heard in a court in Maryland last week.

Organizations like Hagar's and Holston's have indicated that they will adapt but continue to support refugees and immigrants.

“I am not going to slow down any of our efforts,” said Jin-Ya Huang, founder of Break Bread, Break Borders, a refugee-centered catering company.

Although the women who work for her were surprised by Abbott's announcement, it will not change how they work or their mission to educate the community about refugees. If anything, the women are most worried that they will be seen as a burden, Huang said.

“[They want to say] 'We've waited to be someplace safe for a long time, and America is that safety net and we want to let people know how grateful we are ... we are happy to be here, we want to work and we can't wait to share our food and our culture with people,'” she said.

Dallas, Fort Worth and Dallas County have all recently indicated their interest in continuing to accept and resettle refugees.

“Texas cities are so refugee-friendly, it's not going to stop people from coming here,” Huang said.

Huang sits on Mayor Eric Johnson's Welcoming Task Force, whose efforts aim to make the city a hospitable place for all. Dallas also recently became the first Texas city to be granted “Certified Welcoming” status by Welcoming America, a nonprofit that supports immigrants in American communities.

“And that's never going to change," Huang said. "We're always going to have those big, open, welcoming Texas arms."