Texas Gov. Abbott Opts Out of Refugee Resettlement, Shocking Local Groups

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, pointing to the door
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, pointing to the door
Gage Skidmore
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Texas, thanks to a letter sent to the U.S. secretary of state by Gov. Greg Abbott, is closed to refugees. The state needs to take care of its own before it seeks to help others, Abbott told Secretary Mike Pompeo.

“At this time, the state and nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless — indeed, all Texans,” the governor wrote.

Abbott’s announcement came on Friday afternoon. No coincidence, given the condemnation it received from across the political spectrum. This was the governor, pandering to the xenophobic right, taking advantage of President Donald Trump’s September decree that state and local governments would now have to opt in to the federal refugee resettlement program and doing so when his decision would attract as little news attention as possible. Both Dallas and Dallas County have opted in to the program but can't continue to participate without state sign-off.

Texas Democrats did not like Abbott’s decision.

"I’m deeply disappointed in Governor Abbott’s decision to opt out of the refugee resettlement program,” state Rep. Vicki Goodwin, who wrote a letter to Abbott last week urging him to keep the state in the refugee program, said in a statement. “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."

Refugee aid groups are stunned at being left in the cold.

“We’re surprised and very disappointed,” said Russell Smith, Refugee Services of Texas’ CEO, “because of how important the refugee resettlement program is to so many different aspects of the economic development of our state.”

More than 40 governors have opted in to the program for 2020, and Texas is the first to opt out.

“The bulk of what (Refugee Services of Texas) has done over the years is resettle refugees,” Smith says. “We exist because there is such a need in the world, there are so many people displaced by war and violence that are in refugee camps that are eligible for and need resettlement. The impact is that Texas will not be opening its doors to those families.”

Regardless of whether Texas actually gets out of the program — a federal lawsuit over Trump’s decision to let state and local governments opt out of the program is pending in federal court — groups like Refugee Services of Texas will keep working to help those who need it most, Smith says.

“We’ve already weathered several rounds of cuts and structural barriers put in place,” he says. “What makes me optimistic is that every time something like this happens, we get a surge in donors and volunteers and people helping out, which really proves the point that we’re a very accepting state ... that we want to have refugees in our state.”

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