Fort Worth

In wake of Paris attack, Gov. Abbott says Texas won’t accept Syrian refugees

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas will no longer accept Syrian refugees.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas will no longer accept Syrian refugees. AP

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has joined in the backlash against the attacks on Paris, saying Texas will no longer accept refugees from Syria because of concerns about terrorism.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, Abbott wrote that “the threat posed to Texas by ISIS is very real” and said the “State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris. 

“Furthermore, I — and millions of Americans — implore you to halt plans to accept more Syrian refugees in the United States. A Syrian ‘refugee’ appears to have been part of the Paris terror attack.”

Abbott’s decision comes as governors from at least 14 other states, from Arizona to Florida to Michigan, said they are opposed to letting Syrian refugees relocate to their states.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, also wrote a letter to Obama, urging the president to temporarily stop Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. Earlier this year, McCaul, who lives in suburban Austin, said he was concerned that the Islamic State could use the refugee system to “sneak operatives into the West.”

The threat posed to Texas by ISIS is very real.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

State Department officials said it was unclear if states could legally block Syrian refugees.

“We take their concerns seriously,” said Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the State Department, explaining that attorneys were reviewing the matter.

‘We can do this safely’

From October 2014 through September 2015, nonprofit agencies placed more than 1,300 Syrian refugees in the U.S., including 190 in Texas, the most of any state. There were 23 political asylees from Syria who moved to Texas during the same time period, according to Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission.

Forty-one Syrians resettled in Tarrant County in fiscal year 2015. They are among the millions of Syrians who have fled their homeland because of civil war and the oppressive presence of the Islamic State, or IS.

Every year the U.S. administration sets a ceiling on the number of refugees who will be accepted into the United States. That number has recently been set at 70,000, but the federal government has moved to increase it to 85,000 with at least 10,000 over the next year coming from Syria. By 2017, the number of refugees accepted will increase to 100,000.

The federal government remained committed Monday with its plans to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this fiscal year. Toner said refugees undergo rigorous multi-agency security checks. He said Syrians have an additional layer of screening before they move to this country.

“We think we can do this safely,” Toner said.

Abbott said he was directing the Texas Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Texas.

From October through July, nonprofit agencies placed more than 1,300 Syrian refugees in the U.S., including 150 in Texas, the most of any state in the nation.

Toner said in his briefing that refugee funding approved by Congress isn’t divided or allocated by nationality.

‘They have fled ISIS’

Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, president of DFW International, a nonprofit organization that works to help immigrant and refugee communities in North Texas, said that shutting out refugees is not a practical way to fight terrorism.

She said Syrians trying to remake lives in the United States are fleeing terrorism, too.

“They have fled ISIS on one side and their own dictator on the other side,” said Weiss-Armush, whose husband is from Syria.

“What is a Syrian father or mother to do? They are trapped between two terrorist groups — their government and ISIS,” she said.

Syrians arriving in North Texas are highly vetted by the government before being allowed to resettle in the United States.

“They are going through the courts,” she said. “Whether they reach the United States through the political asylum method or the State Department — the security check for each family is twice as intense.”

What is a Syrian father or mother to do? They are trapped between two terrorist groups — their government and ISIS.

Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, president of DFW International

She said that single men from Syria are not accepted.

“They are all families with small children,” Weiss-Armush said.

One family, profiled in September in the Star-Telegram, endured bombings that took the left leg of their daughter, now 5, and blew off two fingers of his 11-year-old son. They arrived in Tarrant County in March.

“It was a scary decision, but it was either stay and get killed by bombing or try to find shelter for my kids,” said Mohamad, the father.

‘Dire circumstances’

The United States typically takes in 60,000 to 70,000 refugees a year, and Texas has received the most refugees in recent years, including 7,466 in fiscal 2013, according to State Department statistics. California was second with 6,379, followed by Michigan with 4,651.

In 2014, Tarrant County helped resettle 1,865 refugees — mostly from Myanmar, Iraq and Somalia.

World Relief, Catholic Charities and Refugee Services of Texas are local nonprofits that work with the federal government to resettle refugees in Tarrant County.

Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth has helped resettle 18 Syrians in Tarrant County. The organization is also helping Mohamad and his family.

41 Syrian refugees have relocated to Tarrant County last fiscal year.

As the violence continues in Syria, local refugee advocates say they expected to take in more displaced Syrians in coming months.

But that was before Friday night’s terrorist attack in Paris that left 129 people dead.

“While an increase in annual refugee numbers is positive progress, there is continued need to advocate and pressure the U.S. government to provide shelter to even larger numbers,” Laila Amara, area director for Refugee Services of Texas in Fort Worth, previously told the Star-Telegram.

“There are currently 60 million refugees worldwide; 11 million of those are Syrians, who are living in dire circumstances and are in need of a durable solution,” Amara said. “The United States has the capacity to provide refuge to even larger numbers than those being proposed.”

Reacting to Abbott

Not long after Abbott’s announcement, other Texas politicians voiced their support.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio said he shared Abbott’s concerns.

“Our highest priority as a state has been and should continue to be the safety of all Texans,” Straus said in a news release. “My office is in contact today with the Department of Homeland Security and the governor’s office about any additional steps that we can take to further protect the people of Texas. I am also asking the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety to debrief with law enforcement to ensure that all appropriate safety protocols are in place.”

U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, also said that Syrian refugees should not be allowed in the United States in the “current dangerous environment.”

U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, said it is time to cut funding for Syrian refugees coming into the U.S.

“The president wants 10,000 refugees. We don’t need that. We have no way of checking them,” Williams said. “The problem is three of these terrorists in Paris came from Syria. That’s another reason why we need to secure our borders. … There should not be any Syrian immigrants coming in at this time.”

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said it’s important to remember that the people fleeing Syria “are forced to abandon their homes due to the extreme violence perpetrated by ISIS, the very same group responsible for the attacks in Paris.”

Another Democrat said it’s important to support those who need help the most.

“The United States of America has always been a beacon of hope and freedom to the world,” said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. “We are a nation that leads and helps those in need.”

Staff writer Maria Recio contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1

U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program

The Departments of Homeland Security, State and Health and Human Services work together to resettle refugees that have been referred by the United Nations and U.S. embassies.

The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services conduct pre-screening, on-site interviews and security checks that include fingerprinting.

The State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees & Migration places refugees in communities through collaboration with nine national voluntary agencies, or non-profits; including Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, International Rescue Committee, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and World Relief Corporation.

Local affliates to the nine voluntary agencies greet refugees at airports and help them with housing and other resources for a period of up to 90 days.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement at HHS provides short-term cash, medical assistance, case management services, English as a Foreign Language classes, job readiness and employment services.

Source: U.S. Office of Resettlement

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