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Can Governor Abbott Actually Prevent Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Texas?

Image via Flickr/IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Gov. Greg Abbott has joined upwards of two dozen other U.S. governors in calling on the president to halt resettlement of Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks.

Gov. Greg Abbott has directed the Texas Health & Human Services Commission's Refugee Resettlement Program to not help place Syrian refugees in the state. No one is questioning his ability to block that state program from working with Syrian refugees. But does his power extend to the non-profits that are using federal money to help resettle refugees in Texas?

There are two organizations in Austin designated by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees, and both were scrambling Monday to figure out what the governor's directive means.

"A lot of people are asking me, you know, ‘What jurisdiction does Gov. Abbott have?’ And, honestly, I don't know that answer,” says Amy Jackson with Caritas of Austin, an Austin-based non-profit that offers services to people in poverty.

The group also helps refugees and their families get settled in Austin – everything from helping with job training to getting their kids enrolled in school.

A similar group, Refugee Services of Texas, has already been helping at least 18 Syrians get on their feet in Texas. In a statement released Monday afternoon, the group asked Abbott to rescind his directive, but it’s also asking lawyers what Governor Abbott's order means. Jackson with Caritas says she doesn't know exactly how the order affects them either, but she says what Caritas does is funded by federal, not state, money.

"The state of Texas obviously has some part of this process,” Jackson says. “But really this is more of a federal mandate than anything.”

Denise Gilman of the Immigration Law Clinic at UT Austin says when a refugee does come to the U.S., the federal government grants that refugee legal status.

“That individual, just like anybody else living in the United States, is able to freely move around the U.S. – move from state to state, as that person chooses,” Gilman says. “And a state simply cannot shut off its borders to somebody living within the United States with lawful refugee status.”

So, maybe Abbott's directive stops a Syrian refugee from being initially located in Texas, but Gilman says there's no way the state could keep that person from then moving to Texas.

The confusion over Abbott's directive – and those of more than two dozen governors – goes all the way to the top. Mark Toner is deputy spokesperson for the U.S. State Department. The agency has a goal of bringing 10,000 Syrians to the U.S. next year.

“You know, it's incumbent on us moving forward, as we strive to reach this target of at least 10,000 for fiscal year 2016, to work with state and local governments, to address their concerns about our resettlement program,” Toner says.

But, when pressed by reporters to answer whether state governors have the power to block Syrian refugees, Toner says he doesn’t have an answer as to whether governors can legally turn away refugees.

The State Department, just like all those local refugee agencies, is talking to its lawyers.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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