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World & Nation

Syrian refugee debate heats up in Texas; group defies governor’s ban

Syrian refugees

Two girls who fled Syria describe their experiences to an immigration worker in Germany.

(Fredrik Von Erichsen / European Pressphoto Agency)

A Dallas relief agency is defying Texas officials and vowing to continue to resettle Syrian refugees in the state.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was among more than 30 state leaders who vowed to bar Syrian refugees last month after the Paris terrorist attacks, tweeting, “Security comes first.”

Federal officials say governors cannot legally reject refugees. But with emotions continuing to build, some resettlement agencies have started diverting refugees from those states.

Now, the Syrian American Council — a 10-year-old Washington-based advocacy group with about two dozen chapters nationwide — has intervened in the Texas conflict.

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The group’s Texas members on Tuesday contacted the governor’s office and asked that he agree to meet with at least one Syrian refugee family resettled in the state, spokesman Omar Hossino said. They tried a similar tactic in Maryland and, joined by local evangelicals and members of the Anti-Defamation League, persuaded Gov. Larry Hogan to meet with them, Hossino said.

“We are confident if he meets with the refugees, he will change his position,” Hossino said. “... We think this policy the governor is doing is misinformed.”

Hossino, who is Syrian American, said that a dozen of his cousins had fled Syria on flimsy smugglers’ boats to Europe, and that another was preparing to make the trip this week from Turkey.

“Syrians don’t want to be refugees,” he said. As Americans, “we have to take in our fair share.”

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Last week, officials at some Texas-based resettlement offices initially declined to respond to the governor’s orders publicly, saying they were awaiting legal guidance from their headquarters in Washington. Then officials at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission singled out one organization for resisting the governor’s order.

Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor warned the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee that it would be in violation of its contract with Texas if it continued to accept Syrian refugees, and could face legal action.

“Many of your fellow organizations expressed a willingness to work with the state to identify alternative outcomes for refugees from Syria who might otherwise relocate to Texas,” Traylor wrote in a Nov. 25 letter. “However, we have been unable to achieve cooperation with your agency. Specifically, your agency insists on resettling certain refugees from Syria in the near future.”

The letter noted that Texas accepts about 10% of refugees resettled in the U.S. — more than any other state. Last year, 28 refugees were settled in the state per 100,000 Texans, compared with 16 in California and 20 in New York. Texas has resettled about 180 Syrians since the country’s civil war began in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But Traylor said the governor decided after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that “accepting refugees from Syria is incompatible with an absolute commitment to the safety of Texans.”

Officials at the International Rescue Committee’s headquarters in New York sent the state a one-page letter late Monday that proposed further discussions but also said they would keep resettling “all refugees who have been admitted lawfully to the United States.”

“We will continue to resettle Syrian refugees to Texas in accordance with our cooperative agreement with the U.S. State Department,” spokeswoman Lucy Carrigan said Tuesday. “We hope to work with Gov. Abbott and other officials in Texas to do our part to persuade them of the integrity of the program and the need to continue to offer sanctuary to the world’s most vulnerable refugees — which includes the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.”

The committee has resettled eight Syrians in Texas — two couples and four children — and expects more in coming weeks, Carrigan said.

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Among those it helped is a man identified only by his first name, Faez. He fled Syria after he was held at gunpoint by a group of militants in his hometown of Dara and resettled in Dallas in February with his wife and infant daughter. He declined a request for an interview.

Carrigan said some Texas officials had welcomed Syrians, including Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who told MSNBC last weekend that he was more afraid of white mass shooters than Syrian refugees.

But Congress defied a veto threat from the president and passed Republican-backed legislation to suspend that Syrian refugee program last month. Afterward, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement sent a letter to resettlement agencies emphasizing that “states may not deny [benefits] and services to refugees based on a refugee’s country of origin or religious affiliation,” including Syrians.

“Any state with such a policy would not be in compliance … and could be subject to enforcement action, including suspension or termination,” the letter said.

After Indiana Gov. Mike Pence refused to accept Syrian refugees, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a lawsuit on behalf of a refugee agency that was forced to redirect a Syrian refugee family to Connecticut. It was unclear whether Syrian refugees had been redirected from Texas because of the governor’s stance.

The ACLU of Texas was “evaluating options” on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

“The bottom line is, refugee admission is a federal matter, reflecting our values as a nation,” said Terri Burke, the group’s executive director. “Texas and other states don’t have veto power in this area.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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Twitter: @mollyhf

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