Texas backs off on effort to block Syrian refugees

Migrants and refugees walk towards a registration camp after entering Macedonia from Greece. Macedonia is allowing refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to cross the border.
Migrants and refugees walk towards a registration camp after entering Macedonia from Greece. Macedonia is allowing refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to cross the border. AP

The state has withdrawn its request to block a family of Syrian refugees from coming to Texas next week and the federal government says 21 Syrians are expected to resettle in Dallas and Houston beginning on Monday.

In its response to a lawsuit filed by the state seeking to stop the International Rescue Committee from bringing in a family of six refugees to Richardson, the federal government on Friday outlined plans for the resettlement efforts.

After the federal response was filed, the state filed a motion to withdraw its request for a temporary restraining order, but continues to seek an injunction requiring the federal government to “comply with its statutory duty to consult with Texas in advance of resettling refugees.”

“Our state will continue legal proceedings to ensure we get the information necessary to adequately protect the safety of Texas residents,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said. “While we remain concerned about the federal government’s overall refugee vetting process, we must ensure that Texas has the seat at the table that the Refugee Act requires.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has ordered that no Syrian refugees be allowed in Texas. Abbott, and other governors and politicians across the U.S., contend that Islamic State terrorists could be among those refugees.

In support of Abbott’s order, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission filed the federal lawsuit against the government and IRC on Wednesday to keep a family of Syrian refugees from coming to Richardson.

Court documents filed by the federal government outlined plans to resettle members of the family of Faez al Sharaa, a Syrian who came to Richardson earlier this year.

Sharaa’s family is expected to be resettled in the Dallas area on Monday, according to court documents. He told the Star-Telegram earlier this week that there is an apartment in Richardson ready for the six additional family members. The family members arrived in New York earlier this week and have been waiting out the legal wrangling.

Other Syrians will be resettled in Houston, including a family of six, a family of eight and a 26-year-old Syrian woman whose mother lives in the Houston area, according to court documents.

Samir Daoudi, a Syrian immigrant who has lived in North Texas since the 1990s, said the newly arriving refugees are vulnerable and need assistance as they try to rebuild their lives in the United States.

“We are kind of shocked, saddened and baffled,” Daoudi said of the governor’s attempt to block Syrian refugees. “I can’t understand the linkage they are making between the terrorists and the refugees.”

‘It’s a difficult issue’

The IRC, a non-profit agency, said in its response that a federal court rule against an emergency injunction it says could “severely harm” the work it is doing.

The IRC argued that “the state has entirely failed to demonstrate that the public interest will be served by an emergency injunction. To the contrary, the public interest will be harmed if the State s permitted to stop IRC from fulfilling its organizational mission and resettling fully vetted Syrian refugee families, as that unilateral state action would be entirely contrary to the U.S. Constitution and federal law.”

Court records indicate that IRC’s Dallas office projects it would resettle between 200 and 250 Syrians in this fiscal year.

Texas is home to the country’s second-largest population of Syrian refugees, with 242 resettled within its borders since 2012. More than 40 Syrian refugees resettled in Tarrant County since September 2014.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, speaking to the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas Friday, said Fort Worth is “not actively engaged” in resettlement efforts, but she is aware that individuals and groups such as Catholic Charities are.

Police and faith-based leaders are made aware of where the refugees generally are staying as a way to help responders know what types of issues they may be dealing with, including languages, Price said.

“It’s a difficult issue,” Price said. “America has always taken in victims of war, and in Texas we have, too. My position as mayor is we have to support what the federal and state authorities are saying and let them work it out in the courts. Obviously, every mayor’s viewpoint is to keep their city and their citizens safe. That’s first and foremost.”

Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne said Irving also had no official position on the refugee issue.

“Personally, I support Gov. Abbott’s concerns,” Van Duyne said. “Whenever you have anybody come into your city, come into your country, come into your state, you have to know who they are.”

‘We welcome refugees’

Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, president of DFW International, a network of internationally focused groups in Dallas-Fort Worth, said her organization’s Refugee Support Network has helped gather furnishings for the family and stocked the kitchen. She was pleased that the temporary restraining order was withdrawn.

“We welcome refugees from Syria and other nations to the land,” she said.

The Syrian families arrived by plane in New York on Thursday and Friday. The federal government plans to assist the families through the necessary entry requirements, including customs, according to court documents.

“As with any similarly situated refugees, once they arrive in the United States, these families are free to travel throughout the country,” the federal government wrote in its filing. “They are not in detention and are not required to travel to Texas if they decline to do so. By the same token, they may leave for any destination at any time if they so wish, albeit without the assistance of the Federal Government.”

The family planning to relocate to Richardson includes Sharaa’s half brother, a sister-in-law, a 4-year-old, a 7-year-old and his parents.

Sharaa, when reached by phone on Friday, declined to comment.

Among the other 15 Syrian refugees on their way to Texas are 12 children between the ages of 2 and 15, according to court documents.

Daoudi said there are Syrian American communities across the country, including in Richardson, north of Dallas. He said newly arriving refugees have been embraced by an established community that includes business owners, doctors and engineers.

Texas’ economy offers the opportunity to find work — a must for refugees, Daoudi said, adding that among recent refugees are a dentist and and mechanical engineer.

“Our wish is that the governor would go and visit these families,” Daoudi said.

‘Resettlement is a federal matter’

Refugee, resettlement and religious leaders have their eye on the Texas case because it tests whether a state has the legal authority to block an action by the U.S. State Department.

Weiss-Armush likened it to a governor telling the federal government it isn’t participating in a war or saying: “I’m not going to send any Texans to go fight.”

Others refugee advocates agree with Weiss-Amush.

“Attempts to close Texas’s doors to Syrian refugees run counter to our laws, our values and our conscience,” Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said in a news release. “Refugee resettlement is a federal matter over which state governments have no veto authority and the refugees who need our help are families, widows and children fleeing unspeakable terror wrought by our own enemies. Texans are better than this.”

After the terrorist attacks in Paris last month, Abbott and other governors ordered a ban on the resettlement of Syrian refugees because of concerns about terrorism.

The IRC’s response was to continue helping resettle the Syrians.

“We are confident that the IRC has always acted in accordance with the law when it comes to our work to assist refugees who have been given sanctuary in Texas,” said Jennifer Sime, senior vice president of the International Rescue Committee.

“We have had a strong and collaborative relationship with the State for the past 40 years, which has benefited refugees and local communities. We have made clear our commitment to continued dialogue with the state authorities and we hope for a swift resolution of this case,” Sime said in a news release.

Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this report.

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