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State Health Commission Threatens to Sue Refugee Resettlement Groups

Image via Flickr/DFID (CC BY 2.0)
Texas groups that resettle Syrian refugees, like these women, could be sued by the state.

From Texas Standard:

State officials have upped the ante against groups that provide services for Syrian Refugees. Over the Thanksgiving holiday Texas Health Commissioner Chris Traylor sent a letter to one such organization, a Dallas branch of the International Rescue Committee – a group that helps refugees resettle in the state.

Brian Rosenthal of the Houston Chronicle reports that the letter says the Health Commission has been “unable to achieve cooperation” with the IRC, and is threatening to sue if the IRC does not comply with Gov. Greg Abbott's order to block all Syrian Refugees.


Abbott’s order was in response to the deadly attacks in Paris, where a fake Syrian passport was allegedly found next to one of the attackers, and speculation has risen over whether or not the attacker entered the country posing as a refugee.

Rosenthal says the letter is what Abbott believes he can accomplish, given the limitations on his power as governor.

"I think it's pretty clear that the governor and the Health Commission are – to borrow a phrase from what Abbott hopes that the refugee organization would do with him – they're ‘closely coordinating’ on how they're responding to this issue,” Rosenthal says.

Rosenthal spoke with the governor’s office, which said they were “well aware of the letter” and fully support the actions that are outlined. “Failure by your organization to cooperate with the State of Texas as required by federal law may result in the termination of your contract with the state and other legal action,” the letter states.

Texas could potentially cut off funding from groups, Rosenthal says. To go further, the state could sue any group that provides services or offers help with refugee resettlement for Syrian refugees.

"Abbott, specifically, is very good at coming up with lawsuits – in his time as attorney general and former state Supreme Court justice,” Rosenthal says. “These refugee resettlement groups receive money from various government entities and provide a whole range of services in addition to just refugee resettlement, and so they certainly could face the risk of having to forfeit that money."

There are a lot of faith-based resettlement groups, Rosenthal says. Catholic Bishops, for one, came out right before the Thanksgiving holiday and said that they will support Syrian refugees and other groups have also voiced support. Rosenthal says that this type of letter could be sent to any refugee resettlement group in the state that takes a similar public position.

"They don't just accept the refugees, they then provide a whole range of services for the people that are already here,” Rosenthal says. “The worry now is if those groups would to have to shut down even temporarily as part of the legal fight. It would would be a question as to what would happen for the services."

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which is making these threats, has contracts with federal and state government. If they begin to wage war against some of these refugee commissions that could cascade in terms of where money goes and whether or not Texas can continue to receive funds from the federal government. Rosenthal says this isn’t anything new.

"You could argue that… the war between the Texas Health Commission and the federal government has been going on for a long time,” he says.

With issues like funding for Planned Parenthood and Medicaid expansion, the state government and the federal government clearly have policy differences, Rosenthal says.

For the threats of a lawsuit against refugee resettlement agencies, Rosenthal says it is possible they could end up in court.

"The legal experts that we talked to think that the federal government is in the right, but a lot of experts thought that way for the immigration executive action case and that case, so far, Abbott has been successful in," Rosenthal says. “We’ll see what happens.”

Rhonda joined KUT in late 2013 as producer for the station's new daily news program, Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.
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