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Texas just became the first state to shut the door on refugees

It used to welcome more refugees than any other state.

Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) holds a news conference in the US Capitol to discuss Syrian refugee legislation on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
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.

Texas became the first state to refuse to take in refugees Friday under an executive order from President Donald Trump that allows state and local authorities to block refugees from settling in their areas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote a letter to the State Department Friday saying that while Texas has historically welcomed more refugees than any other state, it will not resettle any additional refugees in the 2020 fiscal year. The decision will not affect refugees who have already been resettled in the US.

So far, 42 out of 50 states with both Democratic and Republican governors have agreed to resettle refugees in 2020. But Texas’s move could embolden the remaining states to follow suit in refusing to do so — including Georgia, home to the city of Clarkston, which has been dubbed the “Ellis Island of the South,” attracting thousands of refugees.

The remaining states face a January 21 deadline to request funding from the State Department for resettling refugees.

Abbott’s decision overrides that of any one city in Texas, such as the historically refugee-friendly cities of Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth. He wrote Friday that his state has been hit the hardest by unauthorized migration stemming from an immigration system that Congress has “failed to fix” and must focus its resources on “those who are already here, including refugees, migrants and the homeless—indeed, all Texans.”

From October 2018 to October 2019, Texas 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.

Trump’s executive order allowed local governments that decide they do not have the resources to support refugees in becoming “self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance” to turn them away.

The State Department is working with nongovernmental organizations already handling refugee resettlement to identify places that are able to absorb refugees, according to a senior administration official. But refugee advocates have expressed concern that the executive order creates inconsistent refugee policies across the country, making it next to impossible for the federal government to properly plan for refugee settlement.

Three major refugee resettlement agencies have asked a Maryland federal court to block the executive order, arguing that it violates federal law mandating that federal agencies take into consideration a detailed list of factors to determine where refugees should be resettled.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) — one of the refugee agencies challenging the executive order — said in a statement that Abbott’s decision was disappointing, but not surprising given Texas’s 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.

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