Texas keeps up the pressure on Syrian refugees

Story highlights

  • Refugee assistance groups found themselves caught in a cross fire between state and federal officials
  • The controversy began after the Paris attacks when reports surfaced that at least one of the suspects may have entered Europe with a wave of Syrian refugees

Washington (CNN)

Texas is not backing down from its pledge to try to block Syrian refugees from its borders.
Over the holiday weekend, refugee assistance groups in the state found themselves caught in a cross fire between state and federal officials concerning whether they can help new Syrian refugees.
    The controversy began after the Paris attacks when reports surfaced that at least one of the suspects may have entered Europe with a wave of Syrian refugees. Several governors -- mostly Republican -- announced their opposition to accepting any new Syrian refugees in their state until they could be assured that security safeguards were in place.
    Legal experts say that while the states cannot close their borders to refugees, they can complicate efforts at resettlement if they choose to withhold some funding.
    On November 25, two letters addressing the issue -- one from state officials, and the other from federal officials -- were sent to resettlement groups based out of Texas. The letters had opposite messages.
    In one letter, a Texas state official warned a Dallas group that its contract with the state will be in jeopardy if the agency does not abide by Gov. Greg Abbott's request for a temporary halt of the settlement of Syrian refugees in Texas.
    "We strongly believe that a failure to cooperate with the state on this matter violates federal law and your contract with the state," wrote Chris Traylor, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, in the letter addressed to the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee.
    The letter noted that the committee "insists on resettling certain refugees from Syria in the near future" and pointed to comments made by the FBI Director James Comey to Congress regarding the difficulty of conducting security checks.
    The Texas Health and Human Services Commission contracts and provides funding to local agencies in Texas who provide services to refugees once they have been resettled in Texas. The funding comes from the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
    On Monday night, the Dallas office of the International Rescue Committee released a statement saying that it hoped that Texas would "continue to honor" the tradition of being a "safe haven for the world's most vulnerable refugees."
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    In the statement, the group said it would "welcome the opportunity to meet with Gov. Abbott" to discuss the resettlement.
    Meanwhile, also on November 25, federal officials from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, sent a letter from its Washington headquarters to resettlement groups in Texas. The "Dear Colleague" letter told the groups that states that receive federal funds may not deny "benefits and services to refugees based on a refugee's country of origin. "
    The letter, signed Robert Carey the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said that his agency is committed "to ensuring that all refugees receive the assistance and services vital to achieving their potential in the United States and becoming self-sufficient, integrated members of our communities."
    Carey wrote that "all refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States, a multi-layered and intensive screening and vetting process involving multiple law enforcement, national security and intelligence agencies across the federal government."
    Groups supporting potential refugees fear the dueling letters will cause confusion.
    Omar Jadwat, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, says the state does not have the legal authority to close borders. He says that while the state says that federal law mandates that the groups conduct their activities "in close cooperation and advanced consultation with the states" that does not mean the state can summarily bar Syrian refugees.
    "That is ridiculous," he said in an interview. "Especially when federal law makes perfectly clear that what the state is demanding is illegal. "
    But a state official, speaking on background, said that lawyers for the state believe they are on firm ground threatening a contract termination and potential legal action.
    According to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, in fiscal year 2015 the total number of Syrians coming into Texas was 190 refugees and 23 asylees. So far, in the 2016 fiscal year, 21 Syrian refugees have settled in the state. The state has asked all local agencies who resettle international refugees to notify the Texas Health and Human Services Commission regarding any plans that may exist to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas.
    In letter dated on November 19, Traylor told one group, "We reserve the right to refuse to cooperate with any resettlement on any grounds and, until further notice, will refuse to cooperate with the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in Texas. "