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Experts: Texas Gov Abbott Can’t Block Syrian Refugee Resettlement

Texas Governor Greg Abbott today joined governors from Michigan, Alabama and other states in banning the resettlement of Syrian refugees. But legal experts say he doesn’t have that authority.


In an open letter to President Obama, the governor says he's directing state agencies not to settle any more Syrian refugees. Abbott was not available for comment, but speaking on the syndicated conservative radio program the Laura Ingraham Show, he said ISIS poses a very real threat to Texas.

"We don't know who these people are or what they're doing, but we do know they are coming from a nation or a state that is connected with terrorism posing very real danger to the people in this state and in this country," Abbott says.

Abbott says the federal government does not have the background information needed to conduct security checks on Syrian nationals. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick also issued a statement saying he fully supports the decision. But some experts question whether the governor has the right to impose such a ban.

Geoffrey Hoffman is director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Houston Law Center. He says the power to enforce immigration laws lies with the federal government, not the states.

"I don't think that this is something that would be legal," Hoffman says. "I don't think it's something that would be constitutional, and I would also say that it's something that's not in keeping with our American traditions."

Hoffman notes that the process of coming to the U.S. as a refugee isn't easy. It's not a very efficient way for a potential attacker to gain access.

"There's extensive screening," he says. "You have to remember also that the refugee resettlement process occurs after a very lengthy period."

For Houston's refugee community, news of the governor's announcement has been disheartening.

Haider Elias came as a refugee from Iraq in 2010. He's a Yazidi, a member of the religious minority that's been persecuted by ISIS. Elias says people fleeing violence and unrest just want to live in peace.

"It takes a lot of courage to come all the way to America, and when you're rejected then it's just … it's frustrating when someone generalizes everybody," Elias says.

In September, the U.S. State Department announced it would allow 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country next year.


Governor Abbott’s letter to President Obama

Response statement from Aaron C. Rippenkroeger, President & CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, Inc.

Refugee Services of Texas extends its deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those whose lives were lost and those who were injured in the Nov. 13 atrocity in Paris. With the rest of the world, we share the grief of France.

Like all Texans, we support all efforts to protect against terrorism. However, we must be careful not to single out refugees who are resettled in the United States as bad actors, which some might construe by Gov. Greg Abbott's directive on future resettlements of refugees from Syria. In fact, three-fourths of refugees who were to be resettled from Syria are women and children seeking protection from ISIS terrorists.

Texas has a great heritage of welcoming refugees who have been assisted by thousands of volunteers from faith-based organizations, civic groups, and community organizations who we know will continue to help welcome refugees who qualify for resettlement under the terms of the International Declaration of Human Rights.

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.

Every year, the United States carefully screens, documents, and resettles close to 70,000 refugees from countries all over the world. Displaced as a result of violence or oppression, these refugees, through often harrowing circumstances, were forced to leave everything behind, including loved ones, to find safety in a foreign land.
As a nation of immigrants, the United States celebrates a rich history of accepting security-screened immigrants and creating an environment where one can succeed through hard work and perseverance, regardless of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

In Texas, where jobs are abundant, housing available, and cost of living affordable, some refugees have found an opportunity to rebuild their lives free from persecution and violence. They are but one small group among the thousands of Americans moving to Texas each year drawn by the growing economy and the great qualities of this state that we all appreciate so much.

Refugees receive a minimal level of assistance through sponsoring agencies and must obtain employment and become fully self-sufficient, tax-paying community members within approximately six months, a daunting task for even the most talented among us. And yet family after family succeeds in this effort, becoming home-owners, colleagues, and some of the best students in our schools. Most refugees go on to become U.S. citizens.

The U.S. refugee resettlement program is vital to the safety and well-being of thousands of families at risk worldwide, and the program should continue uninterrupted. We urge Gov. Abbott to rescind his directive.

Additionally, we welcome and encourage independent reviews of the resettlement program because we see it working every day in the lives of hundreds of refugees, the employers they work for, and the communities across Texas they call home that are enriched by their culture and invaluable contributions.

Fortunately, Texans understand the grave and urgent need to assist refugees from around the world who flee violence and oppression. Without Texas' wide open arms, many refugees we now call neighbors might not be here today.

We as Texans have the unique opportunity to demonstrate compassion and lead the nation and the world by example as we welcome thousands of newcomers into our great state over the next few years.