National

Texas clashes with refugee agency over Syrians

Mohamad's 11-year-old son lost two fingers on his left during civil war fighting in Syria. He and the rest of his family have been accepted into the United States as refugees, Wednesday, September 9, 2015. State officials are in dispute with resettlement agencies about resettling more Syrians in Texas. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison)
Mohamad's 11-year-old son lost two fingers on his left during civil war fighting in Syria. He and the rest of his family have been accepted into the United States as refugees, Wednesday, September 9, 2015. State officials are in dispute with resettlement agencies about resettling more Syrians in Texas. (Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison) Star-Telegram

Texas state officials are threatening a local refugee resettlement agency with legal action should it continue aiding Syrian refugees.

Texas is home to the country’s second largest population of Syrian refugees, with 242 resettled within its borders since 2012.

This weekend, the state threatened to take legal action and terminate the contract of the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee, which resettles refugees on behalf of the U.S. government. The group receives federal funding and operates through the state’s refugee resettlement program within its Health and Human Services Commission.

“The governor believes that accepting refugees from Syria is incompatible with an absolute commitment to the safety of Texans,” wrote Chris Traylor, executive commissioner of the state agency. “Failure of your organization to cooperate with the State of Texas as required by federal law may result in the termination for your contract with the state and other legal action.”

Failure of your organization to cooperate with the State of Texas as required by federal law may result in the termination for your contract with the state and other legal action.

Chris Traylor, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, to a resettlement agency in Dallas

Traylor’s letter followed one earlier this month from Gov. Greg Abbott to President Barack Obama saying that “Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees – any one of whom could be connected to terrorism – being resettled in Texas.”

And yet, more are being resettled in Texas.

Despite Abbott’s order, refugees and advocates in North Texas are preparing for the arrival of a Syrian family that is supposed to join family members living in Richardson, north of Dallas.

Faez, a Syrian refugee who spoke some English, confirmed to the Star-Telegram that family members who are in Jordan are scheduled to arrive in Texas this week. He said there is an apartment awaiting his family members.

Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, president of DFW International, a network of internationally focused groups in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, said her organization’s Refugee Support Network has helped furnish the apartment and stock the kitchen.

She said the family includes Faez’s half-brother, a sister-in-law, a 4-year-old, a 7-year-old and Faez’s parents.

Weiss-Armush said that if the family arrives, it will test the “authority of a governor to challenge the State Department refugee policy.”

She also questioned the legality of the Abbott’s policy.

“The policy that violates our Constitution and the rule of law – that’s exactly how I feel,” she said.

Others agree. “The bottom line is, refugee admission is a federal matter, reflecting our values as a nation,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Texas and other states don’t have veto power in this area.”

In fact, on Nov. 25 federal officials with the Office of Refugee Resettlement sent their own letter to Texas resettlement agencies. “States may not categorically deny ORR-funded benefits and services to Syrian refugees,” wrote Robert Carey, the office’s director.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission refused to comment about its letter or the resettlement program, with spokesman Bryan Black writing in an email that “at this time, we are letting our letter do all the talking on this issue.”

Abbott’s spokesman, John Wittman, said the governor supports the agency’s letter but wouldn’t comment further.

Texas has traditionally been welcoming to the world’s refugees, resettling more than any other state during the month of October, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

Texas has been incredibly generous. It leads the country in the number of refugees given safe haven.

Lucy Carrigan, spokeswoman for the national International Rescue Committee

“Texas has been incredibly generous,” said Lucy Carrigan, spokeswoman for the national International Rescue Committee, based in New York. “It leads the country in the number of refugees given safe haven.”

This weekend’s letter from Traylor came in the wake of a request by state officials that the International Rescue Committee disclose whether it is expecting any Syrian refugees, said Donna Duvin, the executive director of committee’s Dallas chapter. The committee’s answer was yes; the Dallas office plans to welcome several families of Syrian refugees over the course of the next couple weeks, she said.

And her organization plans to continue its work despite the state’s action, she said.

Although the International Rescue Committee receives its funding through the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, that money comes from the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to the refugee office.

“We have a cooperative agreement (with the federal government) that mandates our services,” Duvin said. “We will continue to work within the bounds of that agreement, and certainly that includes Syrian families.”

Duvin said she wants to talk with state officials about just how thorough the international refugee vetting process really is.

“We’re willing to sit down and go over it line by line until the commissioner and the governor have the same sense of security and confidence in the system that we do,” Duvin said.

Duvin says her group reached out Monday to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission; the International Rescue Committee has yet to get a response.

Mueller reported from Washington. Smith, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Fort Worth.

  Comments