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Abbott Holding the Line on Syrian Refugees

After unsuccessfully demanding that private resettlement groups stop helping Syrian refugees move to Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott's administration is now insisting that the federal government turn over background information on them.

A group gathered at Wooldridge Park in Austin on Nov. 22, 2015, to protest Gov. Greg Abbott's decision not to accept refugees from Syria.

After unsuccessfully demanding that private resettlement groups stop helping Syrian refugees move to Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott's administration is now insisting that the federal government turn over medical, security screening and other background information on them. 

Saying it wants to “satisfy our concerns with the effectiveness of the screening procedures," the state also asked that any arrivals — including two Syrian families expected to arrive in Dallas soon — be delayed while it reviews the information it has requested.

The Obama Administration has said the United States will accept up to 10,000 refugees fleeing war and devastation in Syria. Three days after the Paris terrorist attacks that left 130 dead, Abbott joined more than two dozen mostly Republican governors in vowing to bar Syrian refugees from their states. 

But so far Abbott has found little leverage for his position. The former Texas Supreme Court justice and attorney general has insisted he has the legal authority to refuse Syrian refugees, citing a specific part of federal law requiring resettlement nonprofits to work “in close cooperation and advance consultation” with the state.

But the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement last week warned Abbott and other governors that they do not have the power to reject Syrian refugees, telling them they would be breaking the law if they denied benefits or services to refugees based on their country of origin or religion.

Resettlement leaders have reiterated that the security screening of refugees, administered by the U.S. Department of State, is a rigorous process that can take up to two years and includes background and biometric checks against intelligence databases.

None of those assurances have diminished his concerns, Abbott said in a phone interview with reporters Tuesday from Cuba, where he is on an economic development trip.

“I think it is irresponsible for the refugee resettlement operations to put aside any type of security interests and continue to press on about this,” Abbott said. He reiterated that the state is willing to take legal action to block Syrian refugees from resettling here.

The most apparent potential target of a lawsuit is the International Rescue Committee — one of about 20 nonprofits that have a state contract to resettle refugees in Texas — which on Monday informed the state that it would move forward with resettling two Syrian families slated to arrive in the Dallas area in early December.

The nonprofit made its decision despite a letter it received earlier on Monday from Texas health and human services chief Chris Traylor urging the committee’s Dallas branch to discontinue resettling Syrian refugees or risk losing its state contract “and other legal action.”

Texas officials on Tuesday asked the U.S. State Department for demographic, medical, security and other case information for Syrian refugees expected to resettle in Texas in the next 90 days. In a separate letter to the International Rescue Committee’s Dallas branch, Traylor asked the nonprofit to “halt resettlement of any Syrians seeking refugee status in Texas until we have received the requested information and our concerns with screening procedures have been appropriately addressed.”

Refugee resettlement in the United States is completely funded by the federal government, but the state is in charge of contracting with local nonprofit organizations and distributing federal dollars to those agencies. Texas also oversees health assistance to refugees through two federally funded programs.

As of Tuesday, Donna Duvin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Dallas branch, said she expected “to be able to receive” the two families. But she added that her organization was preparing “to work with other resources within the community” if they were unable to obtain the funds from the state, noting that not all dollars used for refugee resettlement are obtained through the state.

“We would like to make any attempt to meet with the governor and other state officials and persuade them of the integrity of the program,” Duvin said in an interview. “If you only look at the stories of the individuals who have already arrived and those who are holding their breath [waiting] ... you would understand these are not families to be feared but these are families who share our ideals.”

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