Abbott Bans Syrians from State Refugee Services

Texas Governor Greg Abbott came out punching hard and fast after last week's terrorist assault on Paris, making it clear Monday he would be doing everything he can to keep refugees from the humanitarian crisis in Syria, or at least not in Texas. 

"Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees — any one of whom could be connected to terrorism — being resettled in Texas," Abbott said in a letter written to President Obama early Monday. "Effective today, I am directing the Texas Health & Human Services Commission's Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the State of Texas. And I urge you, as President, to halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States."

At speaking engagements throughout the day Monday, Abbott continued to hit his claims hard, telling reporters he would not be "rolling the dice" by allowing refugees seeking escape from Syria to find homes in Texas.

In September, the United States announced that it would admit about 15,000 Syrian refugees to the country during the fiscal year that began October 1 — that's out of about 85,000 refugees overall. Texas, as one of the biggest states in the nation and home to several of the country's largest cities, would've been the expected destination for many of those refugees, according to Jason Clarke, the founder and executive director of Seek the Peace, a local peace advocacy and refugee assistance group. From October 2014 to September 2015, about 190 Syrian refugees were placed in Texas by nonprofit agencies, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Since October, when the State Department's new Syrian refugee initiative kicked in, only a small number of additional refugees have come to the state. Clarke puts the number that have settled in DFW at about 25.

Abbott is going to do everything he can to make that number zero, and he has put some swagger into his rhetoric. This is what he said on Twitter Monday morning to announce his opposition to the refugees:  Giving Abbott the benefit of the doubt, what he actually means is that Syrian refugees who wish to come to Texas will not have access to the state's refugee resettlement program. They are not banned from the state, because refugees are admitted to a country, not a state, as State Department spokesman Mark Toner made clear during a media call Monday. The governor is merely keeping access to essential services from those who need them most (ref. women's health).

Clarke and other refugee advocates say that the governor's announcement, and its timing, will only stoke fears of the refugee community in Texas and around the United States.

"Refugees are the single-most scrutinized and vetted individuals to travel to the United States. Given existing security screening procedures for refugees, we believe the governor’s directive will serve no useful purpose except to stoke fear and bigotry toward refugees — prejudice which Americans, who comprise our nation of immigrants, have historically and categorically rejected," Aaron Rippenkroeger, president and CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, said in a statement.

"We have plenty of safeguards in place," Clarke says, before pointing out that refugees from other countries terrorized by ISIS have not experienced similar vitriol. "In the 40 years the [United States'] refugee resettlement program has been in effect, it's helped 3 million people. Three of them have participated in terrorist activities in the United States."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young