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Abbott Went Against Some Supporters When He Said ‘No’ To Refugees, Records Show

More than 50 letters and emails to Abbott and his staff obtained by KERA show advocates and opponents of refugee resettlement urged the governor to heed their requests prior to his decision.

Gov. Greg Abbott
Christopher Connelly/KERA News
Gov. Greg Abbott


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Months and weeks before Gov. Greg Abbott said refugees would not be resettled in Texas this fiscal year, dozens of organizations and individuals lobbied him behind the scenes.

The more than 50 letters and emails to Abbott and his staff, obtained by KERA through a public records request, show that advocates and opponents of refugee resettlement urged the governor to heed their requests prior to his decision.

They included elected officials, the Catholic Conference of Bishops, Episcopal Bishops from Texas, Presbyterian Church leaders, evangelical Christians, Jewish clergy and agricultural groups.

The correspondence reveals that Abbott, a Republican, ruled against some powerful interests in the state, including business trade groups that traditionally have supported GOP causes.

Faith groups and the agricultural industry in Texas are among Abbott's most loyal constituent blocks, but on the refugee question, he parted ways with them despite their lobbying efforts.

Advocating For Resettlement

Immigrant labor fuels the more than $115 billion agriculture industry in the state – a statistic Abbott has touted as a major economic driver for Texas.

Ross Wilson, CEO of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, represents the "largest cattle feeding region in the U.S.," according to the group's website.

In an email to Abbott's Chief of Staff Luis Saenz, Wilson urged the governor to send a letter to the U.S. State Department, allowing refugee resettlement to continue in Texas.

He said governors of competing cattle states had already indicated their support for refugees. Texas cattle feeders are "heavily dependent," he said, on packing plants in Amarillo, Friona and Cactus, which rely on immigrant workers.

"Labor supplies are very tight and the refugee resettlement process has, and will continue to provide employees for packing plants and other employers."

Abbott is the only governor to reject the resettlement of newly-arrived refugees since President Donald Trump issued an executive order in September. That order directed cities and states to provide written consent to the U.S. State Department if they wanted to accept or keep newly-arrived refugees out of their communities.

"Texas has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system," Abbott said in his letter to U.S. Secretary of State 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."

Since his decision earlier this month, Abbott's been heavily criticized by nonprofit agencies that work with refugees and well as some religious groups.

The governor's stance angered many who've long seen Texas as a welcoming place for newcomers. Since 2002, Texas has resettled the second largest number of refugees, according to the Pew Research Center.

For now, Abbott's decision doesn't hold since a federal judge temporarily blocked the Trump administration's executive order earlier this month.

Before the federal ruling and Abbott's decision, some groups were eager to hear from the governor on the issue.

On Dec. 12, an hour after emailing Abbott's chief of staff, Wilson with the Texas Cattle Feeders Association sent another email. This time he attached a letter from JBS USA which, according to its website, is a leading processor of beef and pork in the U.S.

In the letter to Abbott, Chris Gaddis, the company's head of human resources, described the impact refugees have had on his industry.

"JBS USA employs 65,000 workers in hatcheries, feed mills, poultry processing plants and beef processing plants alongside our trucking and distribution division," Gaddis wrote. "In many of our facilities in Texas, and throughout our locations across the country, we rely on a diverse workforce which includes refugees who have integrated into our communities and become invaluable members of our team."

Some organizations distributed blank post cards encouraging people to ask state officials to consent to refugee resettlement.
Some organizations distributed blank post cards encouraging people to ask state officials to consent to refugee resettlement.

Others appealed to Abbott's religious side.

"I do not see this as a political issue but rather a Biblical matter," wrote Brenda Kirk, south central regional mobilizer for Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, a self-described network of conservative faith, law enforcement and business leaders. "We are praying you will consent to allow refugee resettlement in Texas!"

Kirk works with the National Immigration Forum and the Evangelical Immigration Table, the latter which sent letters to numerous governors encouraging them to take in refugees.

In her correspondence, Kirk included literature such as "Thinking Biblically About Immigrants and Immigration Reform" and "The Evangelical Statement of Principals for Immigration Reform."

‘Enough Is Enough’

The messages from individuals also included those urging him to opt-out of refugee resettlement.

"The money being thrown at the so-called refugees could easily be used to take care of some of the infrastructure problems in this country," wrote one woman. "Enough is enough. Stop the importation of unproductive people, who will never assimilate and will always be a burden on taxpayers."

A letter from an individual urging Gov. Abbot to withhold consent for refugees to resettle in Texas. Personally identifiable information has been removed.
A letter from an individual urging Gov. Abbot to withhold consent for refugees to resettle in Texas. Personally identifiable information has been removed.

Another person asked the governor to send her confirmation that he had decided Texas would not receive more refugees.

"We have already received so many refugees in Texas it is critical we delay any more for a few years to assimilate those already here," she wrote. "Democrats in Fort Bend County are trying to impact our voting base and we are concerned. Did you decline?"

‘Opportunity To Meet’

There were also meetings between refugee resettlement advocates and Abbott's staff.

One group lobbying Abbott was the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. The day before the governor sent his decision to Pompeo, the executive director of Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops emailed Abbott's staff.

In that email, Jennifer Allmon shared a map of the United States that showed which states had agreed to accept refugees and which states hadn't decided.

"I have been told by my colleagues in some of these other states that their governor is waiting on Governor Abbott as they intendent [sic] to follow his lead," Allmon wrote. "We are getting a little more nervous as we draw closer to the deadline to grant consent."

Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops Executive Director Jennifer Allmon's letter to Gov. Abbott's staff.
Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops Executive Director Jennifer Allmon’s letter to Gov. Abbott’s staff.

The email also noted that Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson was still waiting to hear back about a meeting with Abbott.

And on Jan. 10, the date of Abbott's letter to Pompeo, Wilson of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, emailed the governor's chief of staff again.

"We very much appreciate this is a very challenging situation, and we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and Governor Abbott to discuss this issue and situation," Wilson wrote.

Attached was a letter signed by more than a dozen agricultural organizations, including Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Poultry Federation and Texas Association of Dairymen. They urged Abbott to support refugee resettlement in Texas and noted agriculture's impact on the state's economy.

"This situation will affect the ability of farmers, ranchers and supporting industries in Texas to maintain their workforce," reads the letter. "As you are aware, Tyson, JBS, Cargill Meat Solutions and numerous other firms of all sizes will be directly affected by this Executive Order."

It was nearly 3 p.m. on Jan. 10 when that email was received. By then, Abbott had made his decision.