By James Russell
Special to the TJP
Faith leaders nationwide expressed dismay at Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to deny resettlement for new refugees earlier this month. Abbott, a Republican, said in his letter to the Trump administration that Texas has already taken in more refugees than most other states and the influx of immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border seeking asylum is burdensome on the state.
In 2016, Abbott sued the federal government to prevent the resettling of Syrian refugees with potential terroristic ties. The lawsuit was dismissed. He withdrew from the federal resettlement program.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as well as the Pew Research Center, nearly 84,000 people have resettled in the state since 2002. Texas is second only to California in this time period. Refugees, as defined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, do not live in the United States, are of special humanitarian concern, able to demonstrate they were persecuted or feel persecuted due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group and have not already settled elsewhere. In contrast, asylum seekers are already in the country and seeking legal status.
The process for both is extensive, lasting between 18 months and three years.
The governor’s decision was in response to a Sept. 26 executive order by the Trump administration requiring refugee agencies to receive permission from states and municipalities before resettling them. Democratic and Republican governors of 42 states have opted in.
A federal judge halted the order Jan. 15 after Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and HIAS, a global refugee resettlement nonprofit with Jewish roots, filed suit in November.
The ruling may have muted Abbott’s move, but it still rattled local, state and national leaders who work with refugees.
In Austin, on Sunday, Feb. 2, HIAS and two dozen other organizations are convening an assembly of speakers calling for more advocacy for refugees.
“The event is a call to action featuring a number of speakers who pivot the crowd toward action at the conclusion,” said Isabel Burton, HIAS’s senior director of community engagement initiatives. The Austin Jews for Refugees Assembly will be the organization’s sixth gathering.
Last week, The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum issued a joint statement with Holocaust Museum Houston denouncing the decision and emphasizing the Jewish imperative for accepting refugees.
“Just as we continue to express our deep concern over the resurgence of virulent antisemitism by reminding people of the connections to the history of the Holocaust, so too, we disagree with turning our backs on refugees arriving on our shores after suffering the ravages of war and religious tyranny,” the statement reads.
Nationally, Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, blasted Abbott.
“He’s doing a disservice to Texas by conflating refugees with asylum seekers with undocumented immigrants,” he said. “The biggest barrier for refugee advocates is getting the facts out there. With Abbott’s decision, refugee advocates now have another barrier to a popular governor who is leading with fear, not facts.”
Abbott’s move also clearly aligns the governor with President Trump. Both have made restricting undocumented immigration and border security key planks of their administrations.
Trump already slashed the number of refugees welcome in the country from 30,000 to 18,000 in 2020. Asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants are not refugees. But conflating them is politically expedient.
“It’s another way to indicate you’re turning off the switch, but you’re doing that to the most vulnerable,” Hetfield said.
Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum Chairman and HIAS Board Member Frank Risch was puzzled by the decision as well. The governor has been a passionate advocate for Holocaust education and genocide awareness. Abbott spoke at the museum’s September opening, calling it “a reminder of the evil that can exist in the world and it stands as a memorial to those who lost their lives, so that their memory will never fade.”
While the governor has been strident on matters of the southern borders, said Risch, “what we are talking about here are people who have been deeply vetted by the Department of Homeland Security, people with deep suffering. Texas of all places has a burgeoning economy and need for labor.”
Refugees are a net positive for Texas and the country, according to two reports.
The National Immigration Forum’s 2018 report “Immigrants as Economic Contributors: Refugees Are a Fiscal Success Story for America” noted they have a higher likelihood of being entrepreneurs than the rest of the population and have filled key positions in the workforce, including in the manufacturing and health care sectors.
A report issued in 2019 by New American Economy noted refugees resettled in Texas combined for more than $6 billion in household income and paid about $1.6 billion in taxes in 2015.
Abbott’s move also has moral implications, said Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El.
“The decision was disastrous. It goes against very core Jewish values and history. We have a clear history of admitting refugees and as refugees,” he said, noting the Torah emphasizes welcoming the stranger. “This is simply another way to say, ‘not in my backyard!’”
He also questioned why Abbott made a statement in the first place. The deadline for governors to respond was Jan. 21. “If you opt out, you don’t have to say a word. By making an an anti-refugee statement, he’s fostering an anti-refugee sentiment.”
Stern said the ruling was fortuitous, coming within a month of the yahrzeit of Holocaust survivor Katherine Bauer and the day after Temple Emanu-El and the Jewish community mourned the death of Jack Repp, another Holocaust survivor.
“They’re two engines of Jewish life who wouldn’t have arrived here because of Abbott’s decision,” Stern said.