Texas pulls out of federal refugee resettlement program: What now?

Texas is one of the most aggressive states in pushing for stricter refugee screening and also one of the most popular hosts for incoming refugees.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Aaron Tate, left, of Interfaith Ministries confers with Rahma Guve, a Somalian refugee that came to the US by herself .

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision Friday to end the US Refugee Resettlement Program in Texas did not come as much of a surprise. For the past year, the governor has voiced concerns about terrorists exploiting the US refugee programs to enter the country.

Texas has been one of the most aggressive in pushing for more scrutiny of refugees. The state also hosts the most refugees in the nation (6,700 refugees arrived  between October 2015 and August 2016). But most observers don't expect a big change. With the available nongovernmental network and infrastructure supporting refugees in Texas, it appears that refugees in Texas – and new incoming ones – may not be affected that much by Texas pulling out of the resettlement program.

As reported by The Texas Tribune, refugee settlement in the state is funded by the federal government but managed by the state, who coordinates with local nonprofit groups to help refugees settle down in their communities. If the state pulls out, it means that the federal government will likely work directly with nongovernment organizations in the state, as it is done in Kansas and New Jersey.

"Refugees will continue to be resettled in Texas only after extensive screenings are conducted by the State Department and Department of Homeland Security," a spokesman for the Office of Refugee Resettlement told the Texas Tribune. Officials stress that refugees who settle in the United States have to go through lengthy and stringent security screenings by multiple agencies and that can take up to two years.

States also don’t have authority to decided how many or which refugees can be resettled. Under the Refugee Act, the power lies with the president and the State Department, according to the Washington Post.

But since the Paris terrorist attacks last year, states have been voicing their concern over the effectiveness of screening programs, especially after the Obama administration announced plans to increase the number of refugees to 110,000 in 2017 from 85,000 in 2016. Arrests of Syrian refugees with ISIS connections, such as two cases in California and Texas in January, also bring up questions about the vetting process.

“Texas has repeatedly requested that the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of National Intelligence provide assurances that refugees resettled in Texas will not pose a security threat, and that the number of refugees resettled in Texas would not exceed the state’s original allocation in fiscal year 2016, both of which have been denied by the federal government,” Governor Abbott said in a statement on Friday.

Earlier this month, the governor threatened to end the program if the Obama administration refused to limit the number of refugees sent to the state and did not certify that they posed no security threat. This follows a lawsuit Texas filed against the administration after the Paris terrorist attacks to block resettlement of Syrian refugees. The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in June, citing that Texas’ claims had no legal merit. According to The New York Times, Texas was the first state to file the lawsuit.

“I am disappointed with the court’s determination that Texas cannot hold the federal government accountable to consult with us before resettling refugees here,” said the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement. “We are considering our options moving forward to guarantee the safety of Texans from domestic and foreign threats.”

Despite Abbott's decision, the many nonprofits serving refugees in Texas have been preparing for such a situation – and are hopeful that the transfer of responsibilities will not disrupt their services.

“Working together, Texans from all walks of life will work diligently to create a new refugee service structure independent of the state of Texas to ensure that the most vulnerable and needy among us receive the welcome and support that they deserve, that demonstrates our true capacity as a state and a nation and that makes us all safer and prouder in the long run,” Aaron Rippenkroeger, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, told the Austin Statesman.

Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, told the Austin Statesman that some of the resettlement agencies might have to do some fundraising during the transition period.

The state’s involvement in the refugee program will officially stop on Jan. 31.

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