AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas wanted assurances Monday from a major resettlement agency that it will not accept Syrian refugees and threatened legal action if Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's orders are defied.
The International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that's based in New York and runs a program in Dallas, gave no indication that it will change course and relocate Syrian refugees somewhere other than Texas. In a statement, the organization said "it is important not to conflate terrorists with the Syrian refugees who are seeking sanctuary in the United States."
Abbott is among nearly two dozen governors, mostly Republicans, who have vowed to block efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in their states following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The Obama administration reminded them in a Nov. 25 letter that states don't have that legal authority and could be punished, including suspension or termination from the federally funded resettlement program, if services are denied.
That same day, Texas health officials sent their own letter, warning legal action against the International Rescue Committee if Syrian refugees are resettled in the state.
"Your agency insists on resettling certain refugees from Syria in the near future. I must ask that you fulfill your statutory duty to conduct your activities 'in close cooperation and advance consultation' with the State of Texas," state Health and Human Services Commissioner Chris Traylor wrote in a letter.
He told the nonprofit, which says it has resettled eight Syrian refugees in Texas, to respond by Monday.
The letter was addressed to Donna Duvin, executive director of the Dallas office, who told The Associated Press last week that her staff was prepared to receive refugees under current federal guidelines. "We're not aggressively going out and pursuing Syrian families, but if there are families who are approved for travel who are destined to come into the Dallas area, that we would be working with those families to the best of our abilities," Duvin said.
Nearly 20 organizations in Texas work with state health officials to provide services to refugees. Most others have "expressed a willingness to work with the state" to identify alternatives for Syrian refugees, according to Traylor, which essentially means finding homes somewhere other than Texas.
Roughly 2,200 Syrian refugees have been allowed in the U.S. over the last four years. The Obama administration, which says the vetting process is thorough and can take up to two years, has outlined a goal of bringing 10,000 more Syrian refugees to the U.S. during the current budget year.
Nearly 200 Syrian refugees have arrived in Texas already this year, according to federal officials. A large number of Syrian refugees have also resettled in California and Michigan.
Texas Republicans, who control every office of state government, have been particularly outspoken in their opposition. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has said "the risk to the safety and security of all citizens is outrageous," and on Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller's Facebook page run by his political campaign, images compared refugees to venomous rattlesnakes.
Governors, including Abbott, have expressed fears that militants planning a terror attack could enter the country under the guise of seeking refuge from war-torn Syria. In the House, lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to erect higher hurdles for Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
Denise Gilman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said the federal government ultimately could just work directly with resettlement agencies. She added that denying Syrian refugees could open the door for discrimination lawsuits.
"There's no real legal claim here," she said.
Associated Press writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.
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