Texas Governor Picks Fight With Faith Groups Over Syrian Refugees

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. CREDIT: P PHOTO/JOEL MARTINEZ
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. CREDIT: P PHOTO/JOEL MARTINEZ

Faith groups in Texas are pushing back against a request from their governor to stop helping Syrian refugees settle in their state, saying the lawmaker’s actions are unChristian and possibly illegal.

On November 16, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott joined a slate of other state governors by asking the federal government to stop settling Syrian refugees in the Lone Star State, which is currently home to one the largest communities of Syrian refugees in the country. He and other lawmakers expressed concerns that, in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks that struck Paris in early November, people fleeing the Syrian civil war could be ISIS agents — even though none of the gunmen in Paris were Syrian refugees.

Abbott’s request, like that of other states, was legally powerless, as states lack the constitutional authority to reject federally run refugee settlement. But Abbott, who is Roman Catholic, departed from other governors by taking even more aggressive action: In addition to asking the president to send refugees elsewhere, he sent a letter to various organizations in Texas that help refugees find homes — most of which are faith-based — insisting their workers halt all assistance to people desperately attempting to escape war-torn Syria.

If you have any active plan to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas, please discontinue those plans immediately.

“As you are aware, I sent a letter to President Obama yesterday informing him that the State of Texas will not participate in the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris,” Abbott’s letter reads in part. “I direct your agencies to use your full authority to comply with this direction.”

Refugee Services Letter

The Executive Commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services Commission sent a similar letter to the organizations two days later.

“Consistent with…federal-law obligation, we now require that you provide immediately and ongoing consultation with Health and human Services Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs regarding any plans that may exist to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas,” it reads. “We reserve the right to refuse to cooperate with any resettlement on any grounds and, until further notice, will refuse to cooperate with the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in Texas.”

“If you have any active plan to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas, please discontinue those plans immediately.”

The letters constituted a direct challenge to the work of groups such as Refugee Services of Texas, which partners with faith-based organizations such as Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Church World Service, and Episcopal Migration Ministries. Faith leaders — especially Christians — in Texas and other parts of the country have spoken out repeatedly against the anti-refugee sentiment of Abbott and other Christian governors, noting that a closed-door policy to refugees flies in the face of Jesus Christ’s biblical call to “welcome the stranger.” Others have pointed out that government-subsidized faith groups typically perform the bulk of refugee resettlement in the United States, and that thwarting their work hedges dangerously close to an attack on religious liberty.

“It is morally irresponsible for political leaders to lead with fear and misinformation,” reads a November 22 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, signed by an ecumenical group of faith Texas pastors, priests, and bishops. “Christian faith leaders are joining me to call upon … Gov. Greg Abbott to reconsider his direction to state agencies to stop assisting organizations that help resettle Syrian refugees … [and] All citizens and leaders to reject rhetoric unbecoming American values and all Christians to speak in ways that give dignity and honor to all people.”

This action by Gov. Abbott does present unprecedented challenges.

But Gov. Abbott’s actions are not just offensive to faith groups — they may also be illegal. In a statement sent to ThinkProgress, Aaron E. Rippenkroeger, President and CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, explained that while his organization isn’t currently working to settle any Syrian refugees, the governor’s request for workers to ignore their plight arguably asks the faith groups to violate federal law.

“Neither we nor any other refugee service agency has ever received such a request from the state government before until this month, so we are all in discussions with local, national and federal partners to understand our obligations to them and to our clients and the contradictions this letter may present,” Rippenkroeger said in a statement. “For example, our agency is required to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities federal financial assistance. Excluding specifically Syrians from our federally-funded resettlement program or other support services may violate federal law, which we would be legally bound not to do.

“We have always strived to be effective collaborators with our state partners, but this action by Gov. Abbott does present unprecedented challenges,” he added.

Catholic Charities, another faith-based group, also helps resettle Syrian refugees in the state. That organization declined a request to comment for this story, but bishops in Dallas and Beaumont have all issued statements condemning governors who reject refugees, as has the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“[The Paris attacks do] not preclude us from having a compassionate response to the children, women and men who are true refugees escaping persecution for their religious beliefs,” read a statement from the Catholic diocese of Beaumont, Texas. “In all things we must remember to be led not by fear but with wisdom, mercy, prudence and compassion. I pray that our leaders find the wisdom to help the refugees while also protecting us at home.”

Changing the mind of Gov. Abbott is likely a difficult challenge for the faith groups, but they already have high-profile political allies in the state. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has said that he would welcome refugees to his city, citing his Christian faith as inspiration and stating that he is more afraid of white men with guns than Syrian refugees running from violence.