Ab­bott’s de­ci­sion on refugees is out of step with Texan val­ues

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - ERICA GRIEDER

As gov­er­nor of Texas, Greg Ab­bott has rarely ex­ceeded ex­pec­ta­tions.

But sel­dom has Ab­bott dis­ap­pointed Tex­ans as pro­foundly as he did this week.

On Fri­day, the Repub­li­can gov­er­nor an­nounced that Texas will be­come the first state to opt out of the refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gram, un­der a new ap­proach an­nounced by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump last year.

This de­ci­sion is a deeply sad­den­ing one, at odds with the val­ues of the city of Hous­ton and the state, both of which have a long his­tory of wel­com­ing refugees, who in many cases have left their home coun­tries to es­cape per­se­cu­tion, war or vi­o­lence.

It also raises some real ques­tions about the cal­iber of Ab­bott’s po­lit­i­cal in­stincts. A day be­fore he an­nounced this de­ci­sion, Hous­ton-area ad­vo­cates were con­fi­dent that he would con­tinue the state’s le­gacy of re­set­tling refugees.

“I can’t imag­ine, re­ally, that Texas is go­ing to be la­beled as a state that does not wel­come oth­ers,” said Ali Al Su­dani, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent of pro­grams for In­ter­faith Min­istries for Greater Hous­ton, when I spoke to him Thurs­day.

Al Su­dani be­gan work­ing with IMGH as a ben­e­fi­ciary of its ser­vices, hav­ing come to Hous­ton from Iraq as a refugee. He told me he was hope­ful that Ab­bott would make the right de­ci­sion even­tu­ally.

Most Hous­to­ni­ans, he ex­plained, are on the same page when it comes to refugees: “We have the sup­port from the busi­ness com­mu­nity, the faith com­mu­nity, the civic com­mu­nity — all of them.”

Natalie Wood, the se­nior vice pres­i­dent of pro­grams for Catholic Char­i­ties of the Arch­dio­cese of Galve­ston-Hous­ton,

was sim­i­larly op­ti­mistic Thurs­day when I asked her for the state of play.

“We do be­lieve in prayer, and we do have strong faith, and we know that usu­ally, in the end, good­ness pre­vails,” she ex­plained.

I asked her what would hap­pen if Ab­bott de­clined to opt in to the pro­gram, just on the off chance he de­cided to do such a thing.

“Oh ...” she said. “Well, I imag­ine if the gov­er­nor doesn’t sign, there would be a lot of peo­ple who would raise their voices in protest.”

“I know how strongly all the Catholic Char­i­ties feel about pro­vid­ing ser­vices to refugees,” she added. “We take it as one of our core min­istries.”

The ques­tion at hand had been put to state and lo­cal lead­ers across the coun­try in a Septem­ber ex­ec­u­tive or­der.

Trump ex­plained that his ad­min­is­tra­tion was seek­ing greater co­op­er­a­tion with state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments to en­sure that refugees “are re­set­tled in com­mu­ni­ties that are ea­ger and equipped to sup­port their suc­cess­ful in­te­gra­tion into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and the la­bor force.”

To that end, he con­tin­ued, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in the fis­cal year be­gin­ning June 1 would re­set­tle refugees only in places where the lead­ers of both the state and the lo­cal­ity af­fir­ma­tively con­sented in writ­ing to their ar­rival.

The pres­i­dent also an­nounced that month that just 18,000 refugees would be al­lowed to re­set­tle in the United States this year, down from 30,000 last year.

This was a bit puzzling, be­cause state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments can’t ac­tu­ally ban refugee re­set­tle­ment. Refugees are le­gal im­mi­grants and, as such, are free to move around within the coun­try.

And the ex­ec­u­tive or­der con­cern­ing where refugees are re­set­tled may even­tu­ally be struck down in court. A law­suit filed by Lutheran Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Ser­vice, Church World Ser­vice and HIAS — three faith-based re­set­tle­ment agen­cies — de­scribes it as an un­prece­dented act of ex­ec­u­tive over­reach.

“Nei­ther the fed­eral statu­tory scheme nor the Con­sti­tu­tion leaves room for a state or lo­cal veto over refugee re­set­tle­ment,” the plain­tiffs ar­gue. A fed­eral judge in Mary­land heard ar­gu­ments on the case this week.

But if Trump’s goal was to stir up con­tro­versy over refugees, the stunt has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. More than 40 gover­nors have al­ready opted in to the pro­gram — in­clud­ing more than a dozen Repub­li­cans.

Some of the lat­ter have shrewdly taken the op­por­tu­nity to pro­claim the virtues of the states they re­spec­tively lead as well as the refugees who might some­day find new homes in their com­mu­ni­ties.

“This marvelous com­pas­sion is sim­ply em­bed­ded into our state’s cul­ture,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Repub­li­can, wrote in Oc­to­ber, af­ter com­mend­ing the con­tri­bu­tions that refugees have made to his state over the course of its his­tory.

Ab­bott is the first gov­er­nor to opt out of the refugee pro­gram — and it’s not the first time. In 2016, cit­ing neb­u­lous se­cu­rity con­cerns, he for­mally with­drew the state from the refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gram. In that case, though, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment con­tin­ued to place refugees in Texas, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with lo­cal agen­cies.

The gov­er­nor’s let­ter to Trump in this case makes no men­tion of se­cu­rity con­cerns and gives the im­pres­sion that he would like to have it both ways.

Ab­bott cites Texas’ his­tory as a wel­com­ing state for refugees as a rea­son the state should now shirk what many of us con­sider to be a moral re­spon­si­bil­ity as well as a good thing for our state.

“Texas has car­ried more than its share in as­sist­ing the refugee re­set­tle­ment process,” Ab­bott writes in its con­clu­sion.

That’s true, and it’s be­cause most Tex­ans be­lieve we can and should wel­come refugees.

Af­ter Ab­bott’s an­nounce­ment, I called Al Su­dani again, and he told me he was shocked, dis­ap­pointed and dis­mayed.

“We should be a leader in show­ing our com­pas­sion,” he said. “We can’t turn our back to the ones who need our help the most.”

“What mes­sage we are send­ing by say­ing of­fi­cially that the state of Texas, with all of our re­sources, that we can’t ac­cept a cou­ple of thou­sand refugees?” he asked. “What kind of mes­sage would this send to the busi­ness com­mu­nity, to other com­mu­ni­ties that want to make Texas home? Do they re­ally want to come to a state that is not wel­com­ing?”

“This is not the Texas I know,” Al Su­dani con­cluded, sadly. And cer­tainly, he is not the only Texan feel­ing that way.

Chron­i­cle file photo

Phyllis Nguyen, right, vis­its with 10 re­cent Viet­namese refugees who had ar­rived in Hous­ton in 1979. Nguyen headed the In­ter­faith Refugee Re­set­tle­ment Com­mit­tee, which looked for churches to spon­sor refugee fam­i­lies mov­ing to the area. Both Hous­ton and Texas have a long his­tory of wel­com­ing refugees, who in many cases have left their home coun­tries to es­cape per­se­cu­tion, war or vi­o­lence.

As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

Gov. Greg Ab­bott said Texas will be­come the first state to opt out of the refugee re­set­tle­ment pro­gram.

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