Texas Gov. Abbott wrong to slam door on refugees

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On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that his state would not be accepting any refugees in the coming fiscal year. He is the first governor to take such a position, under the terms of an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September that requires state and local jurisdictions to consent to refugee resettlement programs. In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abbott wrote, “At this time, the state and non-profit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless — indeed, all Texans.” 

Gov. Abbott’s position rests on flawed partisan reasoning. It overlooks the contributions of refugees to Texas communities and the state economy. This is a purely political decision, driven by Abbott’s loyalty to the president, rather than by what Texans want.

Abbott’s decision is especially misguided because Texas has traditionally been one of the country’s most welcoming states for refugees. The website Vox reports that, between October 2018 and October 2019, Texas took in 2,457 refugees, or about eight percent of the 30,000 total refugees resettled in the U.S. That number would have been far less in the upcoming fiscal year, as the Trump administration has already drastically cut the national cap on refugees to a historic low of 18,000.

In his letter to the State Department, Abbott notes Texas’ past role in welcoming refugees, before going on to express his concerns about the border. “Texas has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system,” he writes. He points out that in May 2019, around 100,000 migrants were apprehended crossing the state’s southern border. But refugees are legal immigrants who are extensively screened and vetted in their home countries for placement in American communities. They are people fleeing persecution who are participating in the lawful process of relocating to the U.S. It speaks volumes that the best argument Abbott can make in justifying his decision is to conflate illegal immigration with refugee resettlement.

How sad that Abbott is willing to politicize vital humanitarian relief.

With his decision, Abbott is sending a message that Texas is not welcoming to newcomers. Consider that more than 40 other governors have already agreed to accept refugees, including 18 Republican governors.

Abbott’s refusal to accept refugees is bad for business and the state economy. Refugees are required to work, and they become earners, consumers, and taxpayers like everybody else. Studies have consistently shown that refugees are a net benefit to the economy. A June 2017 report by the New American Economy estimated the spending power of refugees in Texas at $4.6 billion, and that in 2015, refugees contributed $422.3 million in tax revenue in Texas. Just last week, Abbott was touting the fact that his state leads the nation for the fastest-growing state economy in the U.S. Yet in the governor’s view, this big, prosperous state cannot absorb a few thousand refugees who would be adding to the state’s GDP.

To their credit, many Texans do not agree with Abbott on refugees. His decision was greeted by editorial headlines like “Abbott’s rejection of refugees incomprehensible” (Houston Chronicle) and “Texas is the only state to turn its back on refugees, and we should be ashamed” (Dallas Morning News).  Although the mayors of Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort WorthHouston, and San Antonio all support accepting more refugees, Abbott has overruled them with his decision. This is ironic, considering that the ostensible purpose of Trump’s executive order was to give localities a say in refugee resettlement. Instead, the governor is imposing his will on communities that want to take in vulnerable people from around the world.

True, under the terms of Trump’s executive order Abbott is allowed to refuse refugee resettlement. However, that order is legally unsound. It violates the Refugee Act of 1980, which says that states and localities are to be consulted regarding refugee placement. In crafting the statute, Congress did not require consent from localities, let alone allow for vetoes. It is in the national interest to have a uniform, federal system for refugee resettlement, not a patchwork of jurisdictions making inconsistent decisions. The good news here is that a federal district court may rule soon on a lawsuit challenging Trump’s executive order. The bad news is that, in the meantime, refugee organizations are dealing with the uncertainly and confusion that come with such legal wrangling.

Gov. Abbott’s decision to reject refugees is cruel and short-sighted. It is a stain on the hospitality and welcoming nature of the Lone Star State.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.

Tags Donald Trump FY2020 refugee resettlement ceiling Greg Abbott legal immigration Mike Pompeo Refugee Right of asylum Texas

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