Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that the state won’t participate in the federal refugee resettlement program this year, citing strained state resources in dealing with a “broken federal immigration system.”
The decision makes Texas the first state to decline refugee resettlement, allowed under a new rule created by the Trump administration.
Abbott had faced pressure to remain in the program from leaders of the state’s largest cities, refugee advocates and evangelical Christians. State Democrats rebuked Abbott over the decision; a few Republicans praised him.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abbott said he “cannot consent to initial refugee resettlement” in 2020.
“This decision does not deny any refugee access to the United States. Nor does it preclude a refugee from later coming to Texas after initially settling in another state,” Abbott wrote.
At least 42 states have opted into the refugee resettlement program, according to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. The deadline for states to decide whether to receive refugees is Jan. 21.
Texas, which has historically resettled more refugees than any other state, has seen a sharp decline in the number of refugees resettled since 2016.
In 2016, roughly 7,800 refugees resettled in the state, according to Church World Service. That number dropped by roughly 3,000 people the following year. In 2019, Texas resettled 2,458 refugees, according to the group.
In his letter, Abbott noted that Texas has welcomed more refugees over the past decade than any other state, amounting to 10% of all refugees settled in the U.S.
But, Abbott wrote, Texas can’t accept additional refugees this year because Congress has left the state “to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system.”
“Texas continues to have to deal with the consequences of an immigration system that Congress has failed to fix,” Abbott said. “At this time, the state and non-profit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless — indeed, all Texans.”
Before his decision, church leaders urged Abbott to allow refugee resettlement.
Nearly 350 evangelical Christians in Texas sent letters to Abbott, urging him to consent to resettling refugees. World Relief, a resettlement agency, and the Evangelical Immigration Table coordinated the effort to send letters to 14 governors, including Abbott.
Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of Austin-based American Gateways, called the decision “a whopping blow to people who need our help the most.” American Gateways provides legal assistance to immigrants in 23 Central Texas counties.
Lightsey said Texas will lose about $17 million in federal money that is meant to support refugees who have resettled in the state. Resettlement agencies are federally funded.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the advocacy organization National Immigration Forum, said the decision will make it more difficult for employers to hire skilled workers in the state.
“I just think the governor has crumbled in the face of a lot of fear mongering, and along the way I think he’s undermining the economy of the state,” Noorani said.
A few Republicans took to social media to applaud Abbott’s decision.
“This is the right position,” U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican from Hays County, tweeted. ”The federal government has utterly failed Texas, the nation, and immigrants. We endanger both Americans immigrants when we continue w/ failed open borders. We should secure our border modernize our immigration system.“
State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said on Twitter, “the same Fed Govt that asks us to receive more refugees has failed to address border security,” adding that “non-border states can step up.”
In a statement Friday, a Texas Democratic Party spokesman said Abbott is in “complete opposition to our Texas values” by barring refugees.
“Refugees are not political pawns and bargaining chips to advance anti-immigrant policies,” Abhi Rahman, a spokesman for the party, said in a statement. “We should be welcoming refugees to Texas instead of ending a program that saves lives.”
Abbott also ended the state’s participation in the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in 2016, but the move did not block refugees from entering the Lone Star State. Instead, it stopped Texas from disbursing federal dollars to local agencies. The federal government instead selected four nonprofits around the state to administer the refugee resettlement program.
At the time, Abbott cited potential security threats for withdrawing from the program.
Refugee resettlement agencies filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s executive order in November, arguing that it violates federal law. A Maryland federal judge heard arguments in the case this week.
Austin American-Statesman staff writer Asher Price contributed to this report.