Judge Rejects Paxton Bid to Block Syrian Refugees

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.
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.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s second attempt to immediately block the arrival of additional Syrian refugees was even shorter-lived than the first.

Dallas-based U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey on Wednesday rejected Paxton’s renewed request for a temporary restraining order barring nine Syrian refugees set to arrive in the state on Thursday. Godbey’s ruling came just hours after Paxton asked for the order, citing security concerns raised by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Robert Bodisch, the deputy director of homeland security at the Texas Department of Public Safety.

In his court filing, Paxton wrote that “evidence came to light” after a conference call this week with the court “that terrorist organizations have infiltrated the very refugee program that is central to the dispute before this Court.” He pointed to comments made by McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and testimony by Bodisch.

In rejecting the state’s request, Godbey wrote the state had not proved that the arrival of the refugees was a “substantial threat of irreparable injury” nor that these nine refugees would commit “acts of terrorism” in Texas.

 

“The Court finds that the evidence before it is largely speculative hearsay,” the judge wrote. “The [state] has failed to show by competent evidence that any terrorists actually have infiltrated the refugee program, much less that these particular refugees are terrorists intent on causing harm.”

Godbey’s rejection of the state’s request comes less than a week after Texas withdrew its first request for a temporary restraining order to block the arrival of two Syrian families — 12 individuals including 6 children — that arrived in Houston and Dallas on Monday.

Paxton dropped that request on Friday — two days after first filing it in federal court — on the same day the federal government disclosed its plan to resettle 21 Syrian refugees in Texas this week. That included the 12 individuals who arrived Monday and the nine expected to arrive Thursday.

Paxton had previously said he dropped the first temporary restraining order request after receiving "additional requested information" from the federal government about the first group of refugees set to arrive in Texas. After withdrawing its first request, the state had emphasized it would still move forward with its lawsuit requesting a preliminary injunction on Syrian refugee resettlement until the federal government and resettlement agencies provide Texas with more case information related to the refugees.

In the filing Wednesday, Paxton said the state was renewing its efforts to block the refugees arriving Thursday because the U.S. State Department had not provided additional refugee case information in light of new security concerns. The nine refugees that prompted the second restraining order request — a family of eight and a 26-year-old woman reuniting with her mother in the Houston area — would arrive in Texas on Thursday to be resettled.

"Federal law requires the Obama Administration to work with the states in the refugee resettling process," Paxton spokeswoman Katherine Wise said in a statement after Godbey's ruling. "The safety and security of Texans is our utmost priority, and we will continue our efforts to get information from the federal government and ensure Texas has a seat at the table moving forward."

Paxton’s request is the latest in the state’s thus far unsuccessful efforts to keep Syrian refugees from being resettled in Texas. Worried about the security screening of refugees, Gov. Greg Abbott joined more than two dozen mostly Republican governors who vowed to keep Syrian refugees from their states in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

The federal government has said governors do not have jurisdiction over refugee resettlement, and several refugee groups in Texas said they would continue aiding Syrian refugees despite the governor’s directive.

 

The state's original lawsuit was filed last week against the federal government and the International Rescue Committee — one of about 20 private nonprofits that have a state contract to resettle refugees in Texas — after they informed the state they would move forward with Syrian refugee resettlement.

The judge’s order will allow the refugees on their way to Texas to be resettled “without delay,” said Rebecca Robertson, policy and legal director of the ACLU of Texas, which is representing the refugee nonprofit that is being sued.

“We are pleased that the court refused to let the state of Texas interfere with humanitarian aid to people fleeing war and violence,” Robertson said in a statement.

The state’s lawsuit argues that the federal government and resettlement group have not fulfilled their contractual obligations to consult with, and provide information to, state officials.

Federal officials have disagreed, arguing that refugee resettlement is a federal responsibility and that Texas is receiving the information required by law. While the state was informed of the arrival of the Syrian refugees, the federal government is not required “to provide advance consultation regarding individual resettlement decisions,” the Obama administration argued.

Abbott, who had declined to comment directly on Paxton’s decision to drop the first request for a temporary restraining order, said on Wednesday that it was “essential” to halt Syrian refugee resettlement “in light of alarming comments” by McCaul and Bodisch.

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