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Texas governor first to reject new refugees under Trump policy

(Jay Janner | Austin American-Statesman via AP, file) In this June 21, 2019 file photo, Gov. Greg Abbott, left, speaks at a news conference at the Capitol, in Austin, Texas. Abbott says the state will reject the resettlement of new refugees, becoming the first state known to do so under a recent Trump administration order. In a letter released Friday, Jan. 10, 2020, Abbott wrote that Texas "has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system." He added that Texas, which typically takes in thousands of refugees each year, has done "more than its share." Governors in 42 other states have said they will consent to allow more refugees, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Houston • Texas will no longer accept the resettlement of new refugees, becoming the first state known to do so under a recent Trump administration order, Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday.

Abbott’s announcement could have major implications for refugees coming to the United States. Texas has large refugee populations in several of its cities and has long been a leader in settling refugees, taking in more than any other state during the 2018 governmental fiscal year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Since the 2002 fiscal year, Texas has resettled an estimated 88,300 refugees, second only to California, according to the Pew Research Center. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is a big proponent of refugee resettlement and has asked the federal government to send more, not less, to the state.

In a letter released Friday, Abbott wrote that Texas “has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system.” He added that Texas has done "more than its share.”

Abbott argued that the state and its non-profit organizations should instead focus on “those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless — indeed, all Texans.”

It wasn’t clear how Abbott’s letter might affect any pending refugee cases.

[Read more: Utah County Commission votes to accept, resettle refugees]

Refugee groups sharply criticized the Republican governor. Ali Al Sudani, chief programs officer of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, predicted that some refugees with longstanding plans to come to Texas would have flights rescheduled or delayed. Al Sudani settled in Houston from Iraq in 2009 and now works to resettle other refugees.

“You can imagine the message that this decision will send to them and to their families,” Al Sudani said. “It’s very disappointing and very sad news, and honestly, this is not the Texas that I know."

Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman also criticized Abbott, saying refugees “are not political pawns and bargaining chips to advance anti-immigrant policies.”

President Donald Trump announced in September that resettlement agencies must get written consent from state and local officials in any jurisdiction where they want to help resettle refugees beyond June 2020. Trump has already slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country for the 2020 fiscal year to a historic low of 18,000. About 30,000 refugees were resettled in the U.S. during the previous fiscal year.

Governors in 42 other states have said they will consent to allowing in more refugees, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which works with local agencies throughout the U.S. to resettle refugees. The governors who haven't chimed in are all Republicans and are from Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Wyoming.

Fierce debates have occurred in several parts of the country, including North Dakota and Tennessee, over whether to opt into refugee resettlement under the executive order. Many Republican governors have been caught between immigration hardliners and some Christian evangelicals who believe helping refugees is a moral obligation.

Utah’s Herbert sent a letter to the Trump administration in October asking that more refugees be sent to Utah to resettle, saying there is plenty of room and resources for those in need.

Herbert said the history of Utah — as a haven for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fleeing religious persecution — informs its approach to refugees, and that many Utahns empathize with the plight of those who have been forced from their homes.

He added those who resettle in Utah become a part of their communities and become productive workers and citizens.

“They become contributors in our schools, churches and other civic institutions, even helping serve more recent refugees and thus generating a beautiful cycle of charity,” he wrote. “This marvelous compassion is simply embedded in our state’s culture.”

LIRS is also part of a lawsuit challenging the order. A federal judge on Wednesday heard arguments on a request by resettlement agencies to prevent the Trump administration from enforcing it.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, LIRS' CEO, called Abbott's decision “a devastating blow to a longstanding legacy of refugee resettlement in the state.” Local officials in Houston, Dallas, and other cities will not be able to take in refugees over the governor's objection, she said.

“There are some refugee families who have waited years in desperation to reunite with their family who will no longer be able to do so in the state of Texas,” she said.

Abbott has tried to stop refugees before, declaring in 2015 that Texas would not welcome people from Syria following the deadly Paris attacks that November. At the time, the administration of former President Barack Obama continued to send refugees to Texas and other states led by Republican governors who were opposed to it.

Al Sudani, of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, pointed out that even if refugees are resettled in a different state, they can travel freely within the U.S. and move wherever they choose.

“Literally you can take the bus the next day and come to Texas,” he said.

Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this report.

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