A group gathered at Wooldridge Park in Austin on Nov. 22, 2015, to protest Gov. Greg Abbott's decision not to accept refugees from Syria. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for the Texas Tribune.
A group gathered at Wooldridge Park in Austin on Nov. 22, 2015, to protest Gov. Greg Abbott's decision not to accept refugees from Syria. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for the Texas Tribune.
Texas’ top elected officials have not exactly welcomed refugees over the past year.

Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the federal government — thus far unsuccessfully — to keep people fleeing war-ravaged Syria from settling here. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller compared refugees to venomous rattlesnakes.

And last week, Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to end state cooperation with the nation’s refugee resettlement program unless federal officials “unconditionally approve” a Texas plan requiring extra vetting of applicants. Such a move would not keep refugees from coming here, but it would eliminate the state government’s role.

But everyday Texans seem to be more willing to help refugees from Syria and elsewhere start new lives in the Lone Star State. Nonprofits that resettle refugees say volunteer turnout has increased — in some cases dramatically — since Texas Republicans first suggested they threatened security.

“It’s one of those rare issues where people’s hearts are really united in supporting refugees,” said Chris Kelley, a spokesman for Refugee Services of Texas, the state’s largest resettlement nonprofit with offices in five different cities. “And I think they see through the rhetoric.”

Kelley said his agency had about 100 names on its Austin volunteer list on Nov. 1 of last year, shortly before state leaders started trying to keep out Syrian refugees. That number has since ballooned to more than 1,400.

The group’s Austin chapter now has 30 “welcome teams,” volunteers who pick up newly arrived refugees from the airport, set up their apartments, help them navigate the town and assist in other ways. That is up from 14 teams in late 2015.

At its other locations — in Amarillo, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston — the nonprofit says growth in volunteering has ranged from 30 to 50 percent over the same period.

That new interest has hit in waves, Kelley said, including in November, immediately after Abbott announced that “Texas cannot participate in any program that will result in Syrian refugees.”

The growth is not limited to that agency. Officials at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston say they are seeing more volunteers each month. The group trained just seven volunteers in July but saw 21 newcomers in September and expects 35 more in October. Meanwhile, annual donations for those services have more than doubled over the past year.

Interest has grown partly because the organization has made more targeted requests but also “because people just want to help,” said Martin Cominsky, the group’s president and CEO, who suggested that even more Texans would volunteer if state leaders offered a more welcoming tone.

A healthy portion of the volunteers come from faith communities, and many have been moved by images of life inside Syria, which has been torn apart by a civil war that, by some estimates, has killed 500,000 people and forced millions to flee.

One photo came last month: a 5-year-old boy sitting dazed and bloodied after being pulled from a bombed out building in Aleppo. Another emerged in September of last year: The lifeless body of a three-year-old Syrian refugee who washed up on a Turkish beach. That’s what prompted Ann Brown to sign up with Refugee Services of Texas.

“I saw that on the news, and just thought that we had to do something,” said Brown, who with a team from Covenant Presbyterian Church has helped resettle five refugee families in Austin. One of those families fled Syria.

“They’re people — people who have needs, and are gracious, loving thankful and appreciative,” Brown said of the Syrian family.

She and other volunteers are trying to drown out the message coming from the Capitol, where officials suggest that accepting refugees is too risky unless the federal government adds more safeguards to its lengthy vetting process.

U.S. State Department officials process applications received through the United Nations and conduct background and biometric screenings — an effort that can take up to two years. Once refugees are cleared, one of nine national resettlement organizations places them in communities across the country, where local nonprofits contracted by the state use federal dollars to help them find jobs, learn English and enroll children in school.

“I feel like it’s political grandstanding and taking advantage of people who haven’t taken the time to understand this issue,” said Merinda Cutler, who started volunteering about a year ago — also spurred by images of Alan Kurdi, the toddler on the beach.

Following terrorist attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people, Texas Republicans raised concerns about refugee screening. Though each of the suspects in those attacks was identified as a European national, one was carrying a forged Syrian passport, according to media reports.

In November, Abbott directed resettlement nonprofits in Texas to stop accepting Syrian refugees — a move federal officials said exceeded Texas’ authority. The state sued to block further Syrian refugees from crossing its borders, but the case was dismissed. Texas has appealed the ruling.

Last week, Abbott threatened to withdraw from the refugee resettlement program altogether without more screening.

“Despite multiple requests by the state of Texas, the federal government lacks the capability or the will to distinguish the dangerous from the harmless, and Texas will not be an accomplice to such dereliction of duty to the American people,” Abbott said in a statement at the time.

His office did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

Anti-refugee rhetoric has accompanied the state’s policy push. Miller, among the most outspoken leaders on the issue, has gone as far as comparing refugees to dangerous animals.

“Can you tell me which of these rattlers won’t bite you?” a November post on his Facebook page asked — juxtaposing photos of twisting mass of snakes with an apparent crowd of refugees. “Sure some of them won’t, but tell me which ones so we can bring them into the house.”

Miller says he has refugees’ best interests at heart.

“I think the compassionate thing to do is let them stay right where they are,” he said in an interview last week. Reminded that Syrians are fleeing violence that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Miller said: “They need to be close enough to their home countries, where they can return to their homes and families.”

If Texas follows through with Abbott’s threat to withdraw from the federal resettlement program, refugees would likely still come here; the feds would instead distribute money directly to the nonprofits.

“It’s a lot of disruption that’s unnecessary,” said Cominsky, of Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston. “But maybe in the end, we’ll come to a better plan.”

Alexa Ura contributed to this story. 

Read more about this issue:

  • As part of its fight to keep Syrian refugees out of the state, Texas is threatening to withdraw from the nation’s refugee resettlement program if federal officials don’t “unconditionally approve” a state plan requiring additional vetting.

  • A practicing Roman Catholic, Gov. Greg Abbott often cites the spiritual underpinnings of his political positions. His stance on barring Syrian refugees from Texas is his latest break with many leaders of his faith.
  • Texas is appealing the dismissal of its lawsuit against the federal government and a refugee resettlement agency over the placement of Syrian refugees in the state. 


This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Top image: A group gathered at Wooldridge Park in Austin on Nov. 22, 2015, to protest Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision not to accept refugees from Syria.  Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera for the Texas Tribune.

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Jim Malewitz

Jim Malewitz primarily covers energy and the environment for the Tribune. Before arriving in 2013, he covered those issues for Stateline, a nonprofit news service in Washington, D.C.