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A federal judge stopped Texas from ending its refugee program

The stakes were even higher than the thousands of refugees Texas is on track to resettle in 2020.

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A girl holds a baby amid tents at Kaibe refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria, on October 21, 2019. 
Esra Hacioglu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Refugee resettlement agencies breathed a sigh of relief after a federal court ruling prevented Texas from shutting its doors to refugees under an executive order from President Donald Trump that allows state and local authorities to block refugees from settling in their areas.

A Maryland federal judge blocked the executive order on Wednesday, finding that giving states the power to veto refugee resettlement “flies in the face” of what Congress intended. Had the court not intervened, Texas would have abdicated its position as the state that has historically accepted the highest number of refugees nationwide and likely emboldened eight other states to consider turning away refugees.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision not to accept refugees, announced last Friday, came as a surprise to local refugee resettlement agencies and conflicted with the positions of cities including Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth, which have been major destinations for refugees in Texas.

The ruling could be overturned if the Trump administration appeals, setting up another potential battle over Trump’s immigration policy in the courts — a prospect that most refugee advocates are bracing for. But at least for now, the court’s ruling means that Texas will continue to resettle refugees as normal in 2020, averting adverse impacts not only on refugees themselves, but also on refugee resettlement resources and infrastructure.

Abbott’s decision came as a surprise

It’s not entirely shocking that Texas would decide not to accept refugees, given its previous attempt to reject Syrian refugees.

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks in late 2015, Texas and 30 other states declared they no longer wanted to take in some of the 5.6 million Syrians who have been displaced since 2011 by the ongoing civil war. But at that time, states didn’t have the legal authority to simply refuse refugees; that was the prerogative of the federal government.

Texas has nevertheless been a leader on refugee resettlement: From October 2018 to October 2019, the states took in 2,457, or about 8 percent, of the 30,000 total refugees resettled in the US, according to the US Refugee Admissions Program. By comparison, the three other states that resettle the highest number of refugees — California, New York, and Washington — resettled 1,841, 1,845 and 1,947 refugees respectively over that period.

That’s why refugee advocates had lobbied Abbott as well as other Texas political leaders at all levels of government to express support for resettling refugees after Trump announced his executive order in September.

Chris Kelley, a spokesperson for Refugee Services of Texas, which helps resettle hundreds of refugees across the state annually, said that the governor was expected to accept refugees in light of the fact that 42 of 50 states, including many with Republican governors, had already announced they would do so. A number of Texas mayors had also urged Abbott to accept refugees, including Republican Betsy Price of Fort Worth.

“As Mayor, I’ve witnessed the mutually beneficial impact of resettling almost 2,600 refugees in Fort Worth since 2016, I don’t want to risk fixing anything that is not broken,” Price wrote in a December 2 letter. “Their stories and path to the United States are now an important part of our own story in Fort Worth.”

Advocates also had positive conversations with a number of Texas officials about resettling refugees, making the governor’s decision to reject them all the more unexpected, Kelley said.

“We were optimistic, in fact, that the governor would announce his support for accepting refugees given what other governors, particularly Republican governors, were doing to accept refugees,” he said. “All of us were caught off guard and surprised and deeply disappointed.”

Texas’s decision to reject refugees would have created a resource problem

Had Texas been allowed to go through with its plan to reject refugees, refugee agencies would have had to redistribute refugees to other states throughout the US. Capacity wasn’t an issue — Trump has slashed the national refugee admissions cap from 110,000 to 18,000 during his time in office, meaning that states are accepting fewer refugees than they are able to support.

But that redistribution could have created other problems: Many refugees already have family in the US, particularly in Texas, and sending them to another state could leave them with little choice but to be separated from their families.

Once refugees are assigned to be resettled in a particular state, that state agrees to provide them with critical social services, including health care, affordable housing, and help finding a job. Refugees are free to move to other states in the US after they’ve been resettled, but doing so means they would no longer be able to access the services that help them assimilate.

“They would have to face an impossible choice of choosing to be nearby family or forgoing some very basic support services,” Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said.

If refugee families choose to move to another state soon after arriving, that could also overwhelm local resources to support them. That would undermine one of the goals of refugee resettlement agencies, which is to create an orderly process to ensure no one location is taking on too many refugees at once, O’Mara Vignarajah said.

Local resources to resettle refugees also might have shrunk had Texas decided not to accept them in 2020. Refugee agencies depend on federal funds to administer their resettlement programs and have used those resources to build up substantial infrastructure for those programs in Texas for decades — losing those funds would be devastating to those agencies.

“All of the support services that are designed around the initial welcome and integration of refugees would start to corrode,” Cindy Huang, vice president of strategic outreach at the refugee advocacy group Refugees International, said.

That’s already started to happen since Trump lowered the refugee cap. The Trump administration restricted organizations that resettle under 100 refugees annually from obtaining federal funding. And according to a June report by Refugee Council USA, refugee resettlement agencies have had to suspend 51 programs in 41 offices across 23 states, including three offices in Texas.

In other states that considered rejecting refugees — including Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, which all have large resettlement programs — that has also been a concern.

Now that states can’t just reject refugees, refugee resettlement agencies will be able to stay afloat. But one (perhaps unintended) consequence of Trump’s executive order remains: It has galvanized bipartisan state and local support for resettling refugees.

“The silver lining is that it’s made refugee resettlement a state and local issue,” Huang said. “It’s creating this opportunity for people to be directly confronted with this, and what people are responding is, ‘I don’t think that’s what being an American means.’”

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