Clements v. Abbott: A New Party Line on Refugee Resettlement

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

On September 21, 2016, the Texas governor’s office released a statement declaring the state’s withdrawal from the refugee resettlement program unless federal security agents could confirm that refugees “[did] not pose a security threat to Texas.” In the governor’s opinion, the federal agents made no such confirmation, and he withdrew from the program shortly thereafter. New information from the Pew Research Center shows that Texas has seen the sharpest drop-off of refugee arrivals in the nation since October of 2016. Moreover, without federally backed funds, the 85th Texas Legislature cut refugee programs from the state budget, effectively ending the state-backed resettlement in Texas.

No other governor in modern Texas history has had the same hardline stance on refugee resettlement as Gov. Greg Abbott. But one other dealt with a refugee crisis as polarizing and tumultuous: Bill Clements.

In the early eighties, Texas was second only to California in the number of Vietnamese refugees living in-state. A 1982 Congressional Report lists 50,700 Vietnamese refugees living in Texas as of FY 1982, with 19,452 of those refugees arriving between October 1981 and September 1982. The resettlement of these Vietnamese refugees along the Texas coast caused a serious uproar. The Coastal Bend saw a resurgence of the KKK, multiple cases of arson and a series of murders.

Much like today, the governor was faced with anti-relocation stakeholders citing security concerns as a key argument for curbing relocation in Texas. Clements, however, worked diligently to calm the storm and maintain the economic well-being of the native-born population, all while continuing to usher in Vietnamese, Mexican and Cuban refugees. Clements called his program a “model for the nation,” and went so far as to appoint a task force charged with proliferating resettlement and protecting the livelihoods of Texans. Clements was the first Republican governor of Texas since Reconstruction and has been credited with orchestrating the Republican dominance of Texas politics. Why then has Greg Abbott steered so far from his predecessor’s precedent?

What does this say about the Abbott’s take on resettlement in Texas? That over time the state’s position in regards to resettlement has shifted dramatically from an economically and politically centered argument to one focused on border control and international security.

Abbott has embraced a new vision of the state — far different from Clements’. Today, Texas is, in the eyes of its governor, a target. Clements, on the other hand, didn’t even entertain this idea. He was far more worried about the economic vitality of the state, the safety of refugees and the ease of assimilation. Even when denying resettlement programs, he still never cited security concerns.

The genesis of Abbott’s safety-conscious stance likely stems from his political stature. Since his first campaign for governor, Abbott has routinely contrasted himself with President Obama and his administration on the topic of resettlement. He then pressed opponents to prove a negative (that refugees were not harboring terrorists). When they could not complete that virtually impossible task, he pointed to their ineptitude — ineptitude that left Texas as a target.

It is irresponsible not to concede that Abbott's stance was swayed, in part, by the events of September 11th and all that has come since. Still, President Obama and Gov. Clements both cited a “moral obligation” in their arguments for resettlement, illustrating how, at its core, the argument for resettlement has remained largely unchanged. Despite the risk of terrorism and his immense knowledge of foreign threats, Clements never wavered on resettlement.  Abbott, however, curbed resettlement, forsaking that “moral obligation” in favor of protectionism.

Does the governor truly believe that Texans are at risk of terroristic violence if he resettles refugees? Surely he does. But, even if he has changed his mind (there is, after all, a new administration in the White House), he is shackled to the polarizing stance he took back in 2016. He made national headlines when he pledged to reject federal funding for relocation services. He also fulfilled a plank in his party’s official platform — one that he helped to create. He made a promise and he kept it. It is not likely that he will let us forget that while stumping for reelection in 2018.

Cole Wilson