Free Syrian flag flying inside the camp for displaced persons at Atmeh, Syria. Getty Images.
Free Syrian flag flying inside the camp for displaced persons at Atmeh, Syria. Getty Images.

Governor Greg Abbott issued a unilateral statement Tuesday in the wake of the Paris terror attacks declaring that Texas will not accept Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and violence and seeking resettlement in the United States. The announcement shocked workers in the refugee resettlement and services community in San Antonio and beyond, and triggered speculation among many who wonder if the governor has the authority to issue such an executive order.

A press release from Abbott’s office issued Tuesday morning included a copy of a letter he sent to President Obama rejecting any Syrian refugees in Texas as a security threat. In the letter, Abbott urged the president to suspend all planned resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States after one of the Paris attackers apparently made his way to Europe by entering Greece posing as a Syrian refugee. Abbott wrote that the federal government lacks the necessary resources and tools to adequately vet refugees and conduct background checks that would prevent a would-be terrorist to enter the country.

Gov. Greg Abbott. Courtesy photo.
Gov. Greg Abbott. Courtesy photo. Credit: Courtesy photo.

“Given the tragic attacks in Paris and the threats we have already seen, Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees – any one of whom could be connected to terrorism – being resettled in Texas,” Gov. Abbott stated in the letter. “Effective today, I am directing the Texas Health & Human Services Commission’s Refugee Resettlement Program to not participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in the State of Texas. And I urge you, as President, to halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States.

“Neither you nor any federal official can guarantee that Syrian refugees will not be part of any terroristic activity,” Gov. Abbott continued. “As such, opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

Pres. Obama announced in September that the United States would increase the number of Syrian refugees admitted to the country for resettlement from 2,000 accepted in fiscal year 2015 to 10,000 in the 2016 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. That promised increase came amid growing pressure from Western allies for the U.S. to shoulder more of the burden of the refugee crisis. An estimated nine million Syrians have fled their home since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. The refugees have dispersed to refugee camps and resettlement camps in 16 nations, and more than 150,000 of them have sought political asylum in Europe Commission countries.

A small group of 20 Syrian refugees are said to be the fist accepted into the United States and are on their way to Michigan, according to a news story in USA Today. Detroit has one of the country’s largest Syrian expatriate populations. Meanwhile, what appears to be a coordinated effort among Republican governors to issue orders prohibiting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states emerged Monday. A USA Today article published Monday stated that at least 21 governors had joined the anti-refugee campaign.

“There may be those who will try to take advantage of the generosity of our country and the ability to move freely within our borders through this federal resettlement program, and we must ensure we are doing all we can to safeguard the security of Americans,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told USA Today.

In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal tweeted, “I just signed an Executive Order instructing state agencies to take all available steps to stop the relocation of Syrian refugees to LA.”

Whether they and other governors hold the executive power to carry out the refugee blockade is probably a matter that will be decided in the courts.

“Refugees go through the most robust security process of anybody who’s contemplating travel to the United States,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told the New York Times in September. “Refugees have to be screened by the National Counter Terrorism Center, by the F.B.I. Terrorist Screening Center. They go through databases that are maintained by D.H.S., the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. There is biographical and biometric information that is collected about these individuals.”

“I knew my Monday was going to be interesting,” said Patty Vela, director of mission advancement for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio. It’s the only agency that processes and resettles refugees in the city through its Refugee Services program.

“We don’t have the answer for you on what is the question of the day,” Vela said when asked about Gov. Abbott’s order. “This is a really a political challenge to what is a very tragic situation. We will have to wait and see what happens.

“At this point we have not had any Syrian refugees settled in San Antonio and we are only agency that resettles refugees in San Antonio,” Vela said. “We were prepared to take 200-500 Syrian refugees in addition to the 500 refugees from other countries we were ready to accept. When are they going to arrive at our doors? We don’t know. It might never happen. What I can tell you is that the vetting process takes place overseas before refugees arrive. It’s a pretty thorough vetting process, it can take a full year.”

Vela said local refugee services officials were expecting arrivals starting sometime soon.

“Once they arrive we pick them up at the airport and we set resettle them immediately in apartment complexes that are in the Medical Center,” Vela said.

“It’s a relationship we have with that area, with Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). He is a real friend of this agency and a friend of the refugees. He is committed to making sure San Antonio takes care of them. There is a really nice fellowship of churches and schools in that area that welcome people. Colonies North Elementary School, Hobby Middle School and Clark High School in the Northside all have welcomed refugee populations successfully. Some others have attended Holmes High School.”

Nirenberg was the first city official to speak in opposition to Gov. Abbott’s declaration.

“It’s the very goal of terrorism to force us to fear our neighbors,” Nirenberg said. “If people really want to understand the depth of the refugee crisis they simply need to look at horrifying pictures of families and children who are at that country’s borders trying to flee the violence we are trying to protect ourselves from here at home. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, ‘Those who are willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.’ Certainly we have the safeguards in place to thoroughly examine refugees and filter out bad elements. Saying no one can come into the United States or Texas is not consistent with the traditions in the nation that has the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of refuge and welcome.”

Catholic Charities, meanwhile, has spent nearly $100 million on Syrian refugees in camps in neighboring Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Pope Francis has asked Catholics in every parish to welcome refugee families. San Antonio’s Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller also has spoken passionately on the subject:

“Only by confronting the reality of persecution can we hope to build peace and allow Syrian refugees to return home and rebuild their lives. Until then, here at home through Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio, Inc. and overseas through Catholic Relief Services we will continue to serve those affected by senseless, unjust aggression to find their next meal, their next home, and the next step for life,” Archbishop García-Siller said in a statement posted on the Catholic Charities website. “Immigrants are people, not mere problems or statistics or irritants. They are our sisters and brothers. This is not a U.S. problem. It is an international humanitarian crisis, and it cries out for all people of good will to strive for justice, fairness and equality. This rapidly changing, challenging phenomenon calls for compassion and common sense.”

“Catholic Charities does everything, you name it, we do it,” Vela said. “We have 40 different programs, and refugee services is one them. The beauty of Catholic Services is its wraparound services: counseling, translation, apartment finding, getting refugees a job, teaching English as a second language, understanding American social norms, how to ride the bus, use U.S. money, etc.”

The U.S. Conference of Bishops is said to be formulating its own public statement in support of refugee resettlement and opposing the coalition of Republican governors calling for end to Syrian refugee resettlement.

*Top image: Free Syrian flag flying inside the camp for displaced persons in Atmeh, Syria. Getty Images.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.