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DPS Chief: Refugee Concerns Extend Beyond Syrians in Texas

Despite Texas Republicans’ laser focus on keeping Syrian refugees from being resettled here, the head of the state's Department of Public Safety says he’d prefer a wider lens that focuses on all countries connected to “Islamic extremist terrorism.”

A child walks in a United Nations refugee camp in Turkey where thousands of Syrian refugees reside.

Despite Texas Republicans’ laser focus on keeping Syrian refugees from being resettled here, the head of the state's Department of Public Safety said Tuesday he’d prefer a wider lens that focuses on all countries connected to “Islamic terrorism.”

“From our standpoint — from a counter-terrorism standpoint — zero is better," DPS Director Steve McCraw said. 

McCraw told members of the House Human Services Committee that DPS' security concerns related to refugees are not limited to Syrians; they extend to individuals from other countries “with known Islamic extremist terrorism,” such as Iraq.

“From a security standpoint, we’re always going to be concerned when we’re going to take a large resettlement of people into Texas or the nation," McCraw said, "... especially if it’s a country that’s connected with Islamic extremism" or the Islamic State.  

McCraw’s comments come almost a week after a federal judge rejected the state’s request to block the arrival of additional refugees from war-torn Syria. Worried about the security screening of refugees, Gov. Greg Abbott joined more than two-dozen mostly Republican governors in vowing to keep Syrian refugees out of their states in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks.

The federal government has argued that governors do not have jurisdiction over refugee resettlement — which is completely federally-funded — and several refugee groups in Texas said they would continue aiding Syrian refugees despite the governor’s directive.

In recent weeks, state officials have solely focused on keeping Syrian refugees out while making virtually no mention of the thousands of Iraqi refugees that have been placed in Texas. In his comments on Tuesday, McCraw said countries with a serious ISIS presence, such as Iraq, are “of major concern from the department’s standpoint.”

Syrians make up a small portion of the refugees resettled in Texas. Recent federal resettlement numbers reflect a Texas refugee population made up mostly of immigrants from Myanmar — which the U.S. State Department still classifies as Burma — and Iraq.

As of Tuesday, 6,724 refugees had been placed in Texas for resettlement this year. Only 215 of them were from Syria, while 1,415 were from Iraq.

Of the 7,694 refugees placed in Texas in 2014, 30 were from Syria and 2,629 were from Iraq.

On Tuesday, lawmakers on the Human Services Committee discussed what the state could do to bolster screening measures for incoming refugees. State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, even pushed for polygraph tests.

“I’m trying to see if we can be constructive in offering ideas,” Raymond said, adding that lie detection tests could help raise "red flags."

But the state plays no role in screening refugees placed in Texas. The U.S. Department of State is responsible for refugee admissions, processing applications received through the United Nations and conducting background and biometric screenings — a process that can take up to two years.

Once refugees are cleared by the State Department, they are assigned to one of nine national refugee resettlement organizations that place them in communities across the country. Those organizations' local affiliates manage the resettlement process, including helping them find jobs, enroll their children in school and become English speakers.

Asked about polygraph tests for refugees, Heather Reynolds, CEO of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth — one of about 20 private nonprofits that resettle refugees in Texas — repeated the already rigorous screening process refugees must undergo. But she added that displaced refugees — many of whom have been living in refugee camps for years — would be willing to comply with any requirements to be resettled.

“These are folks who have fled their homelands and cannot return,” Reynolds said.

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