A humanitarian group has vowed that it will "absolutely" continue to help Syrian refugees resettle in Texas, defying a written notice from a state official last week that threatened legal action amid a nationwide backlash against Syrians who have fled the bloody conflict in their homeland.
The Dallas branch of International Rescue Committee (IRC) said on Tuesday it "believes wholeheartedly in its refugee resettlement program," and has already reached out to Texas Governor Greg Abbott to talk through the issues. Abbott and 30 other governors — all Republican except for one — have called for a halt to resettling Syrian refugees in their state in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, citing fears militants could use the asylum process to infiltrate the US.
"Texas has long been a welcoming state for refugees and in fact has been the leading state to resettle the majority of refugees to the US," IRC spokeswoman Lucy Carrigan told VICE News. "We do plan to continue with the program, but we want to work with the governor to do our piece to persuade him of the integrity of the program and let him know why these refugees are coming here."
The comments came in response to a letter sent on November 25 by Chris Traylor, the executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Traylor warned the group that violating Abbott's decision not to accept Syrian refugees could lead to legal action.
"Failure by your organization to cooperate with the State of Texas as required by federal law may result in the termination of your contract with the state and other legal action," Traylor wrote.
The IRC said it has yet to receive a response to its meeting invitation from Abbott, who is currently in Havana, Cuba on a business development mission through Wednesday.
'Apart from swimming the Atlantic Ocean, the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult way to enter the United States.'
Abbott and other governors are asking for more intense screening requirements for refugees, even though refugee advocates say the current process is extremely stringent. The IRC said in a statement issued on Monday that Syrian refugees are already "the most vetted group of people to come to the United States."
"Apart from swimming the Atlantic Ocean, the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult way to enter the United States," the group added.
In his letter, Traylor wrote that "Texas accepts approximately 10 percent of all refugees resettled in the United States — more than any other state."
Carrigan said that the US has received around 2,000 Syrian refugees since the country's civil war erupted nearly five years ago. Texas has accepted roughly 200 of them, and IRC has been involved with resettling two families — both couples with young children.
Some refugee advocates have argued that threats by governors to block Syrians from their states are hollow because the federal government holds exclusive legal authority over allowing refugees to enter the country.
Last month, a coalition of civil rights and refugee groups filed a lawsuit against Indiana Governor Mike Pence, claiming that he is violating the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause — a passage in the 14th Amendment that says states cannot deny citizens "the equal protection of the laws" — by discriminating against refugees based on their nationality.
"Decisions concerning immigration and refugee resettlement are exclusively the province of the federal government," Ken Falk, legal director of Indiana's ACLU, said in a statement. "Attempts to preempt that authority violate both equal protection and civil rights laws and intrude on authority that is exclusively federal."
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Governors do, however, have some control over the purse strings that make refugee resettlement possible. Funds to provide housing, clothing, and other assistance are distributed jointly by state and federal offices through contracts with partners such as IRC.
The White House has so far refused to back down on President Barack Obama's promise to bring 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers to the US within the next year.
Under the current process, UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, refers potential refugees for US resettlement to the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, which then vets the potential candidates. The process takes around two years and has been effective thus far.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the US has resettled 784,000 refugees. Of those, three have been arrested for planning terrorist activities. Two of those arrested were not planning attacks on American soil, and the third case was "barely credible," according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC.
Carrigan said that the IRC has "had a longstanding presence in Texas," and intends to continue "working with state officials to work through this particular issue and to assuage their fears."
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields