Texans will not abandon refugees in their hour of need

Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

At a time when the nation and the world need the state of Texas to help welcome some of the most vulnerable populations on Earth, the state has chosen to shut its administration's door on refugees, survivors of human trafficking, military veterans with special immigrant visas, Cuban entrants and approved asylees, among others.

The decision on Sept. 30 by Gov. Greg Abbott to withdraw Texas from its role in the nation's refugee resettlement program after nearly 40 years of participation is dangerous, divisive and dehumanizing, and it panders to the most xenophobic tendencies of a small sliver of Americans.

But Texans know this truth as well as anyone on Earth: Nothing great is ever achieved by fear and by thinking small.

And, rest assured, the thousands of compassionate Texans who have helped resettle refugees for over four decades in the Lone Star State — citizen volunteers, people of faith, community groups and social service professionals — will not abandon them in their hour of need.

For the past month, state officials have regretfully ignored the voices of thousands of Texans from all walks of life who have pleaded that they not turn their backs on refugees, survivors of human trafficking, and other vulnerable people — the voices of Texas clergy from every faith background, volunteers from all political parties and residents of small towns and big cities across the state who have opened their hearts to welcome refugees fleeing violence and oppression and been forever changed through this act of compassion.

As we witness the blood of hundreds of innocent women and children spilled in the streets of Aleppo, Syria, and in villages across the Middle East — forcing the world's largest migration on record and the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War — Texas' refugee resettlement program is needed now more than ever.

Texas has built one of the most successful refugee integration programs in all the world — the result of a public-private partnership that has included a dedicated, devoted and hard-working group of colleagues employed by the state of Texas; professional liaisons at school districts and county health departments across Texas; partners employed by locally based nonprofit agencies with assistance from national nonprofit agencies; and partners at the federal level, including employees of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This relatively small but effective group of humanitarian professionals rely on a much larger group of citizen volunteers — many of whom are called by their faith to assist the needy and vulnerable — to help welcome families at airports and assist them with modest accommodations while professional case workers help the children enroll in school, get the parents enrolled in English classes, address any medical issues and join the U.S. workforce in a remarkably short period of time.

This partnership has consistently resulted in the fastest and highest levels of self-sufficiency for refugee families in the nation and serves as an international model of success. Within five years, the vast majority of these populations arriving in Texas become thriving, proud, tax-paying Texans and U.S. citizens.

Our work will continue despite the state's wrong-hearted decision. But it will not be easy to reconstruct a service infrastructure for these vulnerable groups that took nearly 40 years to build.

Recent announcements would have Texans believe that refugees are dangerous. This is inaccurate and irresponsible political rhetoric. It is tragic that refugees who have come to America seeking safety and freedom are being targeted by politicians based on the countries from which they have fled. Such sentiments are un-American and un-Texan.

We know who refugees are. The U.S. handpicks the most vulnerable families and individuals, who then undergo 18 to 24 months of rigorous security vetting before they are admitted. Most are coming to be reunited with family members who already live here. All refugees resettled in Texas and the United States undergo rigorous screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies — screenings that include biometric checks, forensic tests, medical screenings and in-person interviews.

Texas' decision chooses to ignore the already stringent vetting requirement for refugees — far and away more rigorous than for anyone else coming to the United States. Texas officials would never hold themselves to the standard that they appear to require of national security officials when it comes to screening refugees — and they would never be able to personally guarantee that no American-born resident of Texas poses a security threat to other Texans.

Texas' public-private refugee partnership, recently falsely described by Abbott as "broken and flawed," must now be converted to an initiative operated not by our devoted public colleagues at the Texas Health and Human Services Department but by a private civil society model that humanitarian professionals will work with local communities to establish. Words cannot express our appreciation to the government employees across Texas who have devoted their careers to serving those so vulnerable — many of whom may now be reassigned or forced to seek new employment.

Values define us as Texans. They have shaped us from birth. And, most importantly, they are the threads that connect us, no matter our differences in appearance, religion or country of origin. Refugees and others who have been welcomed in Texas first want to be safe and secure. Then, like all Americans, they want acceptance and opportunity — the chance to thrive in freedom.

The large and compassionate refugee service community in Texas will not forsake them—even if our state does.

Aaron Rippenkroeger

President and CEO, Refugee Services of Texas