Texas’ ban on Syrian refugees may soon be facing first test

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott AP

A three-generation family fleeing civil war in Syria may find themselves the first ones caught in the showdown between Texas officials, who want to block their arrival, and the federal government and nonprofit groups that assist refugees.

After the terrorist attacks on Paris last month, Gov. Greg Abbott and the state agency that manages a refugee resettlement program ordered nonprofits to stop helping Syrians, citing potetntial threats to public safety.

Last weekend, agency head Chris Traylor told the International Rescue Committee, based in New York, to disclose whether it is expecting any Syrian refugees.

Donna Duvin, executive director of committee’s Dallas chapter, said yes. The Dallas office plans to welcome several families of Syrian refugees in the next couple weeks, she said.

And her organization plans to continue its work despite the state’s action, she said.

One family is expected to join relatives in Richardson within days.

Faez, a Syrian refugee who speaks some English, told the Star-Telegram that relatives now in Jordan are scheduled to arrive in Texas this week. An apartment awaits them.

Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, president of DFW International, a network of internationally focused groups in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, said her organization’s Refugee Support Network has helped furnish the apartment and stock the kitchen.

The family includes Faez’s half-brother, a sister-in-law, a 4-year-old, a 7-year-old and Faez’s parents, she said.

Weiss-Armush said that if the family arrives, it will test the “authority of a governor to challenge the State Department refugee policy.”

She also questioned the legality of Abbott’s policy.

“The policy that violates our Constitution and the rule of law — that’s exactly how I feel,” she said.

Texas is home to the country’s second-largest population of Syrian refugees, with 242 resettled here since 2012.

“The bottom line is, refugee admission is a federal matter, reflecting our values as a nation,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Texas and other states don’t have veto power in this area.”

Late last week, the state threatened to take legal action and terminate the contract of Duvin’s office, which resettles refugees on behalf of the U.S. government. The federal funding flows through the state’s refugee resettlement program within its Health and Human Services Commission.

But the money starts at the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to Duvin’s office.

“We have a cooperative agreement [with the federal government] that mandates our services,” Duvin said. “We will continue to work within the bounds of that agreement, and certainly that includes Syrian families.”

Texas has traditionally been welcoming to the world’s refugees, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

“Texas has been incredibly generous,” said Lucy Carrigan, spokeswoman for the national International Rescue Committee, based in New York. “It leads the country in the number of refugees given safe haven.”