Texas Is Trying to Stop the Influx of Syrian Refugees

There won't actually be fewer refugees moving to Texas, but the decision to withdraw from the federal resettlement program sends a pretty strong political message.

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Nov 8 2016, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Beth Cortez-Neavel

When he landed in the Austin airport with his wife and three young kids, Mohammad Al Samadi knew just two things about Texas: It wasn't a war zone, and it would be his family's new home. For the young Syrian construction worker, that was enough.

"It's safe. The city is beautiful," Al Samadi, 32, told me through a translator last week as we sat in the office of the nonprofit Refugee Services of Texas Austin. He arrived two months ago and is yet to make friends, find a job, or learn English—but compared to his past life, he told me, "difficulties don't exist." His family fled heavy fighting in Daraa, Syria, for Jordan back in 2012, and then spent years interviewing with the UN and US State Department before they were finally resettled.

"People here have treated me very well," said Al Samadi. "In America, someone can work, go out, and live normally. In Syria, there's no such thing."

The Al Samadis comprise five of the 912 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in Texas in the past year, nearly all of them families, with 75 percent women and children, Refugee Services of Texas Austin spokesman Chris Kelley told me. And the Al Samadis join a total of 7,802 refugees placed last year in Texas, the second highest number in the US after California.

But now Texas is pulling out of the federal resettlement program, which Texas governor Greg Abbott said was "riddled with serious problems that pose a threat to our nation." The withdrawal, which he announced in September, will go into effect January 30, 2017.

Abbott claimed in a press release that the federal government had the "inability to properly vet refugees from Syria and countries known to be supporters or propagators of terrorism," and that President Obama was "ineptly proposing a dramatic increase in the number of refugees to be resettled in the US."

The announcement, which made national headlines, followed a year of fierce anti-refugee fights by the state. Abbott tried last November along with about 30 other Republican governors to block Syrian refugees from resettling, writing a letter to President Obama detailing concerns after a terrorist attack in Paris killed 130 people.

But the federal government and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonprofit charged with distributing refugees, continued placing Syrians in Texas and throughout the US, since resettlement is a federal, not state, decision.

In response, Texas's Department of Health and Human Services then filed a lawsuit against the IRC, arguing that the agency could not place Syrian refugees in the state. But Texas dropped the case last month after Indiana lost a similar suit in federal appeals court. The judges in that case said refusal to accept Syrians "clearly discriminates" against the population.

"The lawsuit was a political scam about the states not wanting to resettle any refugees based on a groundless proposition that Syrians represented a security risk that was found by the court unfounded and discriminatory," Dana Rubin, the executive director for IRC's Dallas office, told me.

Now, Texas has resorted to withdrawal from the federal resettlement program—but the same number of refugees will continue to be resettled in Texas, according to Victoria Palmer, public affairs specialist for the US Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families. The difference is in the distribution of funds and services for those individuals and families. Currently, the State of Texas receives the funds to distribute to nonprofits, which distribute money to the refugees and offer support services. Now, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) will instead choose one or a few nonprofits to receive and distribute those funds.

"While we of course regret Texas's decision, ORR is working to appoint designees to administer services to refugees in Texas," Palmer told me. "ORR is working to prevent a disruption in the delivery of services and benefits to refugees and entrants in Texas."

And the US Department of State, which screens refugees and works with ORR to distribute them, said Texas would continue to receive all groups of refugees, including Syrians.

"Applicants to the US Refugee Admissions Program are currently subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States," a State Department official told me in an emailed statement. "Syrian refugees are screened to an even higher level."

Since Texas's withdrawal can't block resettlement, immigration experts told me the move was purely for show.

"It makes no difference, it's just a political thing. It's a public announcement by Texas saying they don't want refugees," Tammy Lin, a national spokesperson for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told me. "It's very frustrating because on the state level the rhetoric is like this, but on the community level, people have been very welcoming."

Lin and Palmer both told me that Texas would eventually operate resettlement through a model that 12 states already use, called the Wilson-Fish Program. Under that program, the federal government picks one or a few organizations to serve as long-term partners, distributing funds and services to nonprofits and to refugees throughout the state. Palmer said ORR would soon make a request for "competitive bids" to serve as the distributors.

"The organizations chosen to be the main agency for the state will be more burdened, but these agencies have been doing this for a very long time," Lin said.

Texas will be the largest state to use the alternative program—which Aaron Rippenkroeger, the CEO and president of Refugee Services Texas, said was cause for concern.

"It was very surprising and extremely disappointing," Rippenkroeger told me of the state's withdrawal announcement. "We feel like we've built an international model for success on how to integrate folks into Texas. Resettlement includes health screenings, medical care, work placement, and case management, so there are a lot of complex elements."

Rippenkroeger told me Texas was consistently in the "80 to 90 percent range for self-sufficiency based on employment and verified income level" within 180 days of refugees' arrival. "We're going to have to work extremely hard to make sure that the impact of the state's withdrawal is not felt by our clients," he said.

But Rubin of the IRC assured me that Texas's withdrawal may even open the door to a better resettlement process.

"We see this as a great opportunity not only to continue our work but to improve upon it," Rubin said. "We're already ready and able to jump on the role of whatever is asked of us by the federal government."

Meanwhile, these political and organizational shifts mean nothing to the Al Samadis, who know nothing of Texas's withdrawal or even of national opposition to Syrian refugees.

For the first several months in the US, the family receives federal financial aid, but a small amount: They receive $1,000 to last their first four months, and then $400 a month for four more months, RSTX Austin Community Integration Program Supervisor Qahtan Mustafa told me. The family also receives housing, food stamps, and Medicaid.

"I've applied for jobs in hotels," said Al Samadi, whom RSTX is helping find work. "I want to live here in dignity and for my kids to get a good education. I want people to know that Syrians are very simple and humble.

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter.

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