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Texas Withdraws From the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Manassé Muturutsa Muugonziza from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghan refugee Fawad Qasimi listen to their teacher in their iACT English class."

UPDATE 12:10 p.m.: Texas has officially withdrawn from the federal Refugee Resettlement Program.

“Texas has repeatedly requested that the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Director of National Intelligence provide assurances that refugees resettled in Texas will not pose a security threat, and that the number of refugees resettled in Texas would not exceed the State’s original allocation in fiscal year 2016 – both of which have been denied by the federal government," Governor Greg Abbott wrote in a statement Friday. "As a result, Texas will withdraw from the refugee resettlement program. As governor, I will continue to prioritize the safety of all Texans and urge the federal government to overhaul this severely broken system.”

The state needs to give the federal government 120 days notice to withdraw, meaning its involvement will officially end at the end of January.

ORIGINAL STORY: The deadline for Texas and the federal government to negotiate the refugee resettlement budget for next year is today, which means officials will give word regarding whether or not they will stay in the program.

Earlier this month, Texas officials threatened to leave the resettlement program if the feds didn’t cap the number of people resettled here and beef up security measures for next year. 

However, the federal agency in charge of the resettlement program says they don’t have control over the number of refugees that come in and that the security measures in place are already stringent.

As a result of rising tensions in the past few weeks, nonprofit refugee service providers are preparing for possibility they will have to carry out the program themselves.

Interfaith Action of Central Texas is among the slew of groups in the state that provide services to refugees here in Austin. Simone Talma Flowers, the group’s executive director, says their English classes are how the community helps welcome refugees recently resettled in Austin.

“We have to do as much as we can to ensure that they know that they belong, this is their home, they are welcome here,” she says.

And Flowers says Texas has been doing a great job of welcoming and helping the families that come here. She says there is a network of nonprofits, faith-based groups and state government that work to help refugees get on their feet and that robust infrastructure is part of the reason the federal government resettles a lot of people here.

Last year, roughly 7,000 refugees – mostly people fleeing conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East –resettled in Texas. That’s more than any other state in the country. For decades now, there have been people like Erica Schmidt-Portnoy of Refugee Services of Texas making sure they have what they need when they get here.

“Part of our job is to ensure that the minute they arrive everything is in place for them,” Schmidt-Portnoy says. “So, we are securing an apartment before they arrive, furniture and household goods. So,when they arrive we pick them up at the airport and transport them to their new home, or what we hope will feel like their new home.” 

Schmidt-Portnoy says her group also makes sure children are enrolled in school, that these families get medical care and they help them get a job.

Another reason Texas gets a lot of refugees is because of the state’s economy. It’s just easier to find work here.

Qahtan Mustafa went through all of this about seven years ago.  He was a translator in Iraq for the U.S. military and was later resettled here in Austin.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Virginia Lamp teaches English to a class of refugees in downtown Austin.

“It’s very overwhelming – the process once you arrive here – it’s just like you are in a tunnel with no light. Like you don’t know anything about this country,” Mustafa describes. “And, you just have so many questions and you don’t know where to start, basically. But the organization here does a really good job by becoming, like, the light at the end of the tunnel for our clients.”

Mustafa says the help he got when he first arrived in Texas was also overwhelming.

“I was surprised by how much the Austin community welcomed me here and welcomed my family. Wherever we go, there is always someone to help,” Mustafa says.

Flowers says, if the state goes through with its threat to leave the federal resettlement program, that feeling that Texas is a welcoming place could be lost.

“It sends a message that refugees are not welcome,” Flowers says. “And that is concerning to us because we are a welcoming community, and it speaks volumes to the refugees that are already here.”

Besides a message, if the state goes through with leaving the program, it means all this work will fall squarely to groups like Refugee Services and Interfaith Action.

A designee will have to work directly with the feds from here on out, and that statewide infrastructure will have to be reworked. Some state workers could also lose their jobs.

Aaron Rippenkroeger with Refugee Services of Texas says it’s going to be an undertaking to shift that work to new groups.

“It’s going to require the best that we have to work with the different folks that are going to be working with us to go through this process, if it keeps moving forward,” he says. “And most of us have never been through this process before.”

But Rippenkroeger says getting this done without interruptions in services is not an option. He says if this happens, groups will consult with other state’s that have programs run by nonprofits.

Of course, Texas will be the biggest state with such a system.

But mostly, Rippenkroeger says it’s disappointing that this is situation could be hurting people who, he says, are just looking for a safe place to live.

“It’s disappointing to hear some of the negative rhetoric that’s catching up to some of these people [who] have been through so much," he says. "They have done nothing other than run away from a conflict."

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