Texas officials have backed off their pledge to block Syrian refugees from resettling in the state in the coming days but vow to continue their legal fight to block others from following in their footsteps.
At least 21 Syrian refugees are scheduled to arrive in Dallas and Houston next week and settle in Dallas. Texas attorneys had pledged to block their arrival but on Friday withdrew a request for a temporary restraining order.
Texas is among more than 30 states where political leaders have vowed to take a hard line against incoming refugees from Syria and the first to take the issue to court. It has become an emotionally charged fight and one that could shape the federal government's plan to resettle refugees throughout the nation.
In recent weeks, Texas mosques and Islamic centers have been vandalized, and politicians' rhetoric has grown more heated. The state's agricultural commission recently posted photos of refugees and snakes on Facebook and posed the question: "Can you tell me which of these rattlers won't bite you?"
Texas has taken in more refugees than any other state in the last five years, including 243 Syrians, the second-most after California, which took in 267, according to the State Department. Among those already resettled in Dallas are relatives of the family of six named in the state's lawsuit.
The International Rescue Committee, a New York-based nonprofit with branches in Texas that's resettling the relatives, has vowed to continue bringing Syrians to Texas, but other refugee groups have stopped or remained silent.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national resettlement organization, in consultation with Refugee Services of Texas, decided that resettling another family of six Syrian refugees in Texas would not be in their best interests due to state officials' opposition.
Attorneys for the Justice Department and the International Rescue Committee filed responses to the state's lawsuit in Dallas federal court Friday after Texas officials sued Wednesday. State attorneys alleged the federal government and refugee group left Texas officials "uninformed about refugees that could well pose a security risk to Texans."
"Members of the federal executive branch have expressed concern regarding this massive expansion of refugees from an area engulfed in fighting with [the Islamic State terrorist group]," the lawsuit says, while noting that "Texas has the sovereign authority and duty to protect the safety of its residents."
Justice Department attorneys countered Friday that Texas officials were trying to exercise "unwarranted veto power over individual federal refugee resettlement decisions" without "showing that these refugees pose any threat, much less an imminent one, to the safety or security of Texas residents or any other Americans."
"The harm to the national interest as determined by the president, and to the interests of the individual refugee families in question, outweigh [the state's] speculative and uninformed fears about security," the filing says.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyers who filed on behalf of the refugee group called the Texas lawsuit "utterly meritless."
Hours later, Texas attorneys withdrew their request for a temporary restraining order after Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton said federal officials "provided additional requested information regarding the first group of refugees set to arrive in Texas."
The state is still seeking an injunction barring resettlement of additional Syrian refugees until the court can determine that federal officials and the refugee group "are complying with their statutory and contractual duties to consult with Texas in advance of placing refugees."
Attorneys for the state have asked the judge for a hearing by next Wednesday.
"Texas shouldn't have to go to court to require Washington to comply with federal law regarding its duties to consult with Texas in advance" of resettling refugees, Paxton said Friday. "Our state will continue legal proceedings to ensure we get the information necessary to adequately protect the safety of Texas residents."
Cecilia Wang, the San Francisco-based ACLU attorney for the International Rescue Committee, said the refugee group was pleased the state backed off on barring next week's arrivals.
"We are glad these new Texans can make their way home and look forward to prevailing in this case," she said.
A spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee said the Syrian family had arrived in New York on Friday.
"They're very happy to be here, very grateful to be here," spokeswoman Lucy Carrigan said, calling the refugees "a wonderful, brave, resilient family who have been through extraordinarily difficult experiences."
She said the family is aware of the lawsuit but still glad to be in the U.S.
"They came here seeking safety," Carrigan said. "And they feel like they're now at peace in the United States."