Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 28, 2017.
President Donald Trump accomplished with one signature what Texas leaders spent a year fighting over.
Trump signed an executive order on Friday to indefinitely ban the entry of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and halt all refugee admissions for 120 days to allow for a review of screening procedures — a move that could keep thousands of refugees from being resettled in Texas.
“It is really heartbreaking, and we have a sense of disappointment and frustration,” said Ali Al Sudani, director of refugee services for the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston. “It’s a life-saving program.”
Al Sudani’s organization — one of about 20 nonprofits that resettle refugees in Texas — is already hearing from refugees placed in Texas who are worried about their relatives or friends who were in the process of receiving refugee status and concerned about “what’s going to be next.”
More than 600 refugees fleeing violence and persecution have been resettled in Texas since Jan. 1., and refugee resettlement agencies were expecting to help thousands more start new lives in the state this year. About 10 percent of refugees admitted into the country each year are typically resettled in Texas, but the Trump administration is also reducing the total number of refugees that will be resettled in the country in the 2017 federal fiscal year to no more than 50,000.
Almost 9,000 refugees from 42 countries were resettled in Texas last year, with more than 1,000 refugees originally hailing from Syria.
For more than a year, the entry of Syrian refugees to the United States had come under intense scrutiny amid security concerns. In Friday's executive order, Trump proclaimed that the entry of Syrian refugees "is detrimental to the interests of the United States." Trump’s executive order also bans the entry of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — for 90 days and will also put the entire program on hold for four months to give national security officials time to review its refugee admission procedures.
Refugee resettlement efforts are completely funded by the federal government. Refugees are settled in the United States after lengthy, stringent security screenings that can take up to two years. Security officials with the state department conduct background and biometric screenings, and they process applications received through the United Nations, which operates refugee camps around the world.
Refugees cleared by the state department are assigned to one of nine national refugee resettlement organizations that place individuals in communities across the country where local case managers help them resettle by helping them find jobs, learn English and enroll their children in school.
In Texas — a hub for refugee resettlement — refugees are quickly integrated into communities across the state. Among those resettled by Refugee Services of Texas, 85 percent were self-reliant, tax-paying community members within six months, said Aaron Rippenkroeger, the organization's president and CEO.
"By definition, refugees are people who face a threat to their safety in their former homes — they are distinctly non-violent," Rippenkroeger said in a statement on Friday. "They personally know the horrors of violence, and like all Americans, they first want to be safe and secure. Being tough on terrorism does not require being tough on refugees."
Refugee resettlement agencies have long argued that refugees undergo the most comprehensive security screenings among foreigners admitted to the country. And they’ve warned against stereotyping those fleeing countries where the majority of residents are Muslim or countries that are home to terrorist organizations, particularly places like Iraq, which refugees often flee after being targeted for helping American troops and companies.
“We cannot make a blanket statement,” Al Sudani said. “These refugees are fleeing the persecution that is exercised by these terrorist organizations.”
Trump’s move to temporarily suspend refugee resettlement comes on the heels of an almost year-long legal battle between Texas’ Republican leadership and the federal government over Syrian refugees.
Following terrorist attacks in Paris, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott first sought to keep Syrian refugees out of the state in November 2015, but he was repeatedly warned by the Obama administration that the state didn’t have that authority. When local nonprofits refused to follow Abbott’s orders to stop resettling Syrian refugees, the state took its fight to court suing the federal government and a refugee resettlement nonprofit.
This prompted an unsuccessful legal battle in which a federal judge repeatedly denied Texas’ efforts to keep Syrian refugees out and eventually dismissed the state’s lawsuit.
Texas eventually decided in late September to withdraw from the program altogether. Citing security concerns, Abbott's office said Texas would no longer participate in the federal refugee resettlement program because the federal government did not “unconditionally approve” its amended state plan to only accept refugees who “are fully vetted and do not present a security threat.”
This did not stop the federal government and local nonprofits from continuing to help refugees relocate here with four regional designees taking Texas’ place in administering refugee resettlement efforts.
Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday regarding Trump’s executive order.
Read related coverage:
- Texas announced last year that it was officially withdrawing from the nation’s refugee resettlement program. But that didn’t stop the federal government from continuing to help refugees relocate here.
- After withdrawing from the federal refugee resettlement program, Texas moved to end its legal battle over Syrian refugees.