It was with some shock and not a little shame that we learned Texas is the first state in the nation to opt out of the federal refugee resettlement program.

The news came Friday in a letter from Gov. Greg Abbott to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and it stated, in stark language, that Texas is not willing to extend itself “after accepting refugees all these years.”

This is a departure from an American spirit of helping refugees fleeing war and persecution, whether from Vietnam, Cuba, Africa or beyond.



This is not a question of seeking to enforce border laws, something this newspaper supports. This is about creating space for people with clear and approved asylum claims, and we are sorry that in his letter Abbott chose to conflate Texas’ border struggles with the decision to reject refugees.

His decision has the potential to throw the American refugee resettlement program into chaos and sow yet more discord among “red” and “blue” states.

Recall, of course, that refugees are legal immigrants who have been vetted by the federal government. Nevertheless, last fall the president issued Executive Order 13888, which requires states and local governments to “opt in” to allow refugees to be settled within their borders. Abbott’s letter is the state’s official notice Texas will be opting out.

This comes as the executive order is being challenged in federal court. Why?

As Mark Hetfield, president of the refugee resettlement agency HIAS, one of three resettlement agencies challenging the executive order, told us, the order “politicizes refugee resettlement, pitting governors against local officials” and for the first time “prohibits people who lawfully entered the United States as refugees from being placed in states and localities that have not ‘opted in’ to accept them.”

We agree and see the order as another way the administration is restricting not only illegal immigration, but also the acceptance and resettlement of legitimate asylum-seekers and those lawfully determined to be refugees fleeing war and persecution. In addition to the executive order, the Trump administration set a cap of just 18,000 refugees for fiscal year 2020, the lowest level in the history of the resettlement program and nowhere near the historical average of 95,000 refugees.

We would also point out, as we did in an editorial published shortly after the executive order was issued, that it “violates the spirit and letter of the Refugee Act of 1980, which established an orderly and transparent process for refugee resettlement in the wake of the Vietnam War.”

The Trump administration argues that the order allows states and local communities to have more say in the resettlement process, and gives them the ability to “opt out” if they feel they don’t have the resources to support incoming refugees.

Abbott notes in his letter to Pompeo that Texas agencies, public and private, must now dedicate resources to those refugees already here. We can’t agree with the governor that a state as prosperous as ours cannot accommodate additional people in need of help.

This past week, the federal judge in Maryland hearing HIAS vs. Trump questioned the timing and necessity of the executive order. When we went to press, he hadn’t granted the injunction against the executive order that HIAS and other resettlement agencies are seeking. But he had said from the bench that the order appears to run counter to established federal law and stated clearly that “states don’t have the authority to make these kinds of decisions.”

Given this administration’s tone and track record when it comes to immigration, it’s hard not to see an executive order that drags governors and mayors into this debate as anything but a political move designed to create walls not only on our southern border but around individual states and municipalities.

At this point, the governors of 42 other states — including California, New Mexico and Colorado, but also traditionally “red states” such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Arizona and Louisiana — have told the Trump administration they are opting-in to accepting refugees. Texas stands alone at press time.

As New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently wrote in support of refugees in her state, “Unlike other immigrants, refugees have been forcibly displaced from their homes, whether by war, famine, religious and cultural persecution or violence. They leave their home countries fearing for their lives, and they come to our shores and our borders often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, desperate — not for a handout but for a chance to start over.

“While refugees arrive needing our help,” she continued, “they are often quick to pay back the country and communities that welcome them.”

Nowhere is this truer than in Texas, which has historically welcomed refugees in great numbers. But in 2016, Texas officially pulled out of refugee resettlement, after Abbott voiced concerns that federal authorities weren’t properly vetting people from war-torn countries such as Syria.

That didn’t stop refugees from being resettled in Texas (nonprofit agencies such as Refugee Services of Texas and Catholic Charities of Dallas continued their work) but it did play into fears that refugees — the most vetted of all immigrants and displaced people arriving in the U.S. — are a threat.

That simply isn’t supported by the facts. A group of Texas lawmakers, including state representatives Vikki Goodwin, Michelle Beckley, Rhetta Bowers, Gina Hinojosa, Donna Howard, Jon Rosenthal, James Talarico, John Turner and Erin Zwiener, got it right in a recent letter to Gov. Abbott:

“This issue,” they wrote, “is both a moral and an economic one. We have an ethical obligation to help those who are fleeing violence and oppression. … Additionally, refugees make a significant economic contribution to Texas and the U.S. They possess an entrepreneurial spirit: 13% of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to 9% of the U.S.-born population. That same year, refugees in Texas spent $4.6 billion and paid $1.6 billion in taxes.”

Texas has for decades been a leader in welcoming and helping to resettle refugees who have in turn made this state better. That reputation is tarnished now by opting out of something as fundamental to our national character as welcoming those fleeing war and persecution, as were those who founded this great country.

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