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12/2: Texas sues feds, aid agency over plans to resettle Syrian refugees in state
Released 27 December 2015  By Tom Benning and Dianne Solis – Dallas Morning Post

Texas sues feds, aid agency over plans to resettle Syrian refugees in state

Tom Benning and Dianne Solis – Dallas Morning Post
December 2, 2015

With Syrian refugee families poised to arrive in Dallas as soon as Friday, the state of Texas took the extraordinary step Wednesday to sue the federal government and the International Rescue Committee to block those resettlement plans.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed suit in U.S. District Court in Dallas, saying the New York-based aid agency violated federal law by working to resettle refugees “without consulting with Texas or working in close cooperation” with the state.

The state Health and Human Services Commission, citing “reasonable concerns about the safety and security of the citizenry of the state of Texas,” is seeking a temporary restraining order to block the resettlement.

“We have been working diligently with the International Rescue Committee to find a solution that ensures the safety and security for all Texans, but we have reached an impasse and will now let the courts decide,” said Bryan Black, the commission’s spokesman.

The lawsuit — the first by a state to block Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks — came after the International Rescue Committee refused to blink in the face of threatened legal action. The aid group had explained its decision to move forward by citing its contract with the U.S. State Department.

The IRC, one of nine federal resettlement contractors with the State Department, said in response to the lawsuit that it “acts within the spirit and letter of the law, and we are hopeful that this matter is resolved soon.”

“Refugees are victims of terror, not terrorists, and the families we help have always been welcomed by the people of Texas,” it said, noting its four decades working in Texas.

The state of Texas had asked the IRC to halt Syrian resettlement plans until the state received more information from the federal government about them. And Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday he’s “relying on national security leaders, as opposed to refugee leaders.”

“It is irresponsible for the refugee resettlement operations to put aside any type of security interest and continue to press on about this,” the Republican governor said on a conference call with reporters.

The first of two Syrian families to be resettled by the International Rescue Committee in Dallas is slated to arrive from Jordan on Friday, said Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, head of the DFW International Community Alliance, a nonprofit that assists immigrants but isn’t one of the federal contractors that officially handle the resettlements.

The family is related to a Syrian refugee who moved to the Dallas area in February, Weiss-Armush said. The group consists of a husband and wife, their 4-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy, and the husband’s parents, she said.

The families’ arrivals would come in the midst of intense wrangling between state officials, the federal government and the refugee resettlement agencies.

“I’m sensing that IRC and the State Department have decided to test the governor’s resolve,” Weiss-Armush said. “Is he going to send the Rangers to the airport to throw them out in front of TV cameras?”

The number of Syrian refugees has increased as war has displaced about half of Syria’s population of 23 million. Texas has become one of the top three states, along with California and Michigan, in Syrian refugee resettlement.

Some have been taken aback by the fierceness of the battle over the refugees, particularly in Texas.

“This is the first time I have seen something like this evolve so quickly,” said Elizabeth Drew, a former State Department official who is now a consultant on humanitarian and human rights issues. “Refugee resettlement has generally been bipartisan, and even nonpartisan.”

But security concerns about refugees spiked with Abbott and many other governors, mostly Republicans, after the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13. The Islamic State — which is one faction involved in Syria’s civil war — took credit for the attacks. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers, but its authenticity has been questioned.

Abbott said Wednesday that national security leaders have described a “very real concern” that terrorists could infiltrate Syrian refugee groups. That was echoed by Paxton.

“The point of this lawsuit is not about specific refugees, it is about protecting Texans by ensuring that the federal government fulfills its obligation to properly vet the refugees and cooperate and consult with the state,” the attorney general said in a written statement.

State Health and Human Services Commission officials had written on Tuesday to the State Department and the International Rescue Committee in Dallas that Abbott wants his security concerns “appropriately addressed,” including all case information about Syrians slated to resettle in Texas in the next 90 days.

“Obtaining information about the screening process and specific information about Syrians proposed for resettlement in Texas is critical to that effort and to enable Texas to ensure the safety of its residents,” wrote Chris Traylor, who heads the commission.

The state had previously told the IRC in Dallas that failure to cooperate with the state “may result in the termination of your contract with the state and other legal action.” But immigration experts — and the Obama administration — have said the state is fairly limited in its ability to block refugee resettlements.

And the IRC — and other refugee resettlement agencies — had pledged to nonetheless accept Syrians.

An IRC spokeswoman said earlier Wednesday that the group is “hoping to meet with Governor Abbott to do our piece to persuade him” about the integrity of the refugee screening process. The group also said it was pleased the state is seeking more information from the State Department.

“We hope that through this process the state of Texas will be persuaded that the refugee security vetting process is a secure one,” the group said.

With that back-and-forth going on, work continues in the Dallas area to help refugee families, Syrian or otherwise. One church that has aided newcomers is Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff.

The Rev. Wes Magruder, the pastor there, is the board chairman of Refugee Services of Texas. He said his church hosted a “First Thanksgiving” last month for about 80 refugees — including two Syrian families — who arrived in the last year. His church is also working to find more affordable housing in the Oak Cliff area for a Syrian family.

Magruder predicted that when new Syrian refugees arrive in Dallas, they will receive a warm embrace from North Texas’ religious community.

“I get a lot of calls from my colleagues at other churches saying, ‘We want to help Syrian refugees. What can we do?’” he said. “I say, ‘Well, we all want to, but that’s kind of the issue right now, whether or not we are going to be allowed to.’”

Staff writer Brandi Grissom in Austin contributed to this report.

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