photo: A young girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo awaits resettlement in a gym in Portland, Maine, in 2019.
A young girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo awaits resettlement in a gym in Portland, Maine, in 2019. Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

Governor Greg Abbott says that Texas can’t afford to take in more refugees and other new arrivals. Mayors and resettlement experts say otherwise.

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott told the Trump administration that his state wouldn’t be taking in any more refugees, he made a striking claim: Texas is full.

“Texas carried more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process and appreciates that other states are available to help with these efforts,” reads the governor’s January 10 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Texas was the only state to take the White House up on its offer to let state and local leaders decide whether to resettle refugees. The deal was short-lived: Last month, a federal court blocked the executive order at issue, mooting the letter in Texas. Yet the lead-up to Abbott’s move involved a prolonged battle. A diverse coalition of interests, including agribusiness, immigration, and faith groups, lobbied the governor, unsuccessfully, to reconsider before he made his decision. (CityLab reached out to the governor’s office for comment and will update with any response.)

Local leaders, too, called on Abbott to drop his opposition to allowing refugees to rebuild their lives in Texas. Mayors in Texas on both sides of the political aisle argued that refugees have a positive impact on their communities, and they insisted that the state can take on far more.

“Refugees have an overwhelmingly positive impact,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler tells CityLab. “We’re not talking about a great number of people. In 2017, just about 3,000 people for the entire state. Austin had about 10 percent of that, about 324 refugees. Austin represents about 7 percent of the [state refugee] population. It’s clearly not a burden.”

Abbott is correct that Texas has resettled more refugees than any other state in recent years. Given its vast size and booming cities—San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Austin were among the nation’s fastest-growing cities over the last decade—that’s to be expected. Adjust for the state’s population, though, and a different pattern emerges: Compared with other states, Texas falls in the middle of the pack when it comes to refugee resettlement, with 8 refugees per 100,000 residents in 2019. It lags far behind the states that led the nation in finding homes for refugees (per capita), namely Washington (with 19 refugees per 100,000 residents), Idaho (25), and Kentucky (29). And all of these states relocated far fewer refugees in 2019 than they did in prior years.

(Marie Patino/CityLab)

Texas might be better positioned to give refugees a fresh start than these other states. Amarillo, Texas, for example, punches above its weight in terms of accepting refugees, thanks to its low cost of living and strong labor market. A pair of local meatpacking plants offer good-paying jobs with a high turnover rate, and Amarillo meets this labor need by embracing refugees. As KERA reports, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association lobbied Abbott to continue accepting refugees, since the cattle industry relies on packing plants in cities like Amarillo. These cities in turn depend on refugees for workers in an era of record lows for unemployment.  

Texas could accept more refugees, leaders argue, but the number of refugees arriving in Texas has fallen sharply. The White House has substantially lowered the ceiling for the number of refugees who can come to the U.S. since President Donald Trump came into office. Over Abbott’s term—he was elected in 2014—the stream of refugees relocating to Texas has slowed to a trickle.

(Marie Patino/CityLab)

Between 2016 and 2019, the number of refugees arriving in Texas has declined by 75 percent—from a high water mark of 8,392 refugees to 2,227, a near-decade low. Other states have recorded similar plunges. The White House has effectively curbed the number of refugees coming to America by fiat.

Refugee resettlement is a complicated profession, according to Russell Smith, CEO of Refugee Services of Texas, the state’s largest resettlement agency. The federal government makes a determination each year about the total number of refugees who will be admitted. Then, nine resettlement organizations—some faith-based groups, others not—work with local partners in each state and the District of Columbia to determine where refugees should initially resettle. Local partners and cities make decisions based on all kinds of factors, including staff capacity, languages spoken, markets for jobs and housing, and where refugees have moved in the past.

Moves by the White House to severely limit refugees arriving in America has jammed up this resettlement machinery, Smith says: “In Austin, at the moment, we’re the only [local refugee relocation service] working. In the current administration, a lot of agencies have had to close their doors. A different Austin agency working with Catholic Charities had to shut their doors a year and a half ago.”

In comments about the order, Abbott suggested that the money used to support refugees should go toward homelessness instead. But, as advocates for both refugees and the homeless have pointed out, that’s not the way it works: Federal funds for refugee relocation can’t just be diverted to homelessness, and groups who work with refugees can’t just turn around and start doing housing policy instead. In fact, Texas cities will lose millions in federal dollars that help to stand up refugee communities—which is one reason these communities are so successful, local leaders say.

The governor has also conflated refugees with migrants seeking asylum at the southern Texas border with Mexico. But that’s a separate issue: Federal funds dedicated to refugees can’t be used to help asylum seekers, either. Refugees are extensively screened by the federal government in their home countries. Most who arrive in Texas hail from nations in Africa and the Middle East.

(Marie Patino/CityLab)

That demographic is bound to change: The White House just expanded its travel ban on nations with Muslim populations to encompass Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, and Tanzania. The Trump administration’s order will affect migration patterns to Texas, but also families living in Texas now. More than 2,000 refugees from Eritrea have resettled in Texas, almost half of them in Houston, over the last decade. And over the same period, more than 22,000 refugees from Myanmar have arrived in Amarillo, Dallas, and other Texas cities.

“The problem here is that people are mixing up immigration and refugees,” says Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who, like Abbott, is a Republican. “Our refugees are fully vetted by the government and approved to come. They have to have a job or school lined up. Fort Worth has taken better than 2,000 [refugees]. All of them have brought great assets to our community.”

Price says that she supports Abbott and thinks other states should help with relocation. She also says that Fort Worth could take in more refugees. Price submitted her own letter to the State Department in December outlining her support for bringing refugees to Fort Worth, as did leaders of dozens of companies, churches, charities, and other communities.

“I don’t want to risk fixing anything that is not broken,” Price’s letter reads. “I have heard from supportive local employers and faith leaders who share my concern that refugees may no longer be permitted in Fort Worth and North Texas, potentially harming our economy and increasing the risk that refugees might not be placed with their Texas family members.”

Abbott, however, does not appear to be swayed by arguments like these. In other recent comments, he’s even suggested Texas is not interested in taking in newcomers from other states, either. In January, he dialed into a segment on Fox Business to discuss a “tax exodus” taking shape. Calling in from the World Economic Forum in Davos, the governor suggested that residents leaving higher-tax states like California should think twice before coming to Texas—an extension of the rhetoric he has used to describe refugees.

“They need to remember exactly why they’re fleeing California, why they’re fleeing Illinois, why they’re fleeing New Jersey and New York and these other states,” Abbott said. “Do not bring with you the thing that’s causing you to flee those states. Come to the land of freedom. Texas is the last bastion of opportunity. Don’t blow it when you come here.”

Abbott added, “Keep Texas red”—a riff on the famous adage about change in the state capital. That could be a hint to why the governor appears so anxious to stop growth at a time when Texas’s economy is still firing on all cylinders. As its cities swell, the state’s overall political complexion is turning blue.

But other Texas leaders are clear on this point: In no way is Texas full.

“It’s also really important, the benefit [refugees] bring to a community in terms of living our ideals and our faiths and our values,” Austin’s Adler says. “To make sure that in the greatest of traditions we offer shelter to those who are fleeing persecution and violence. It goes to how we see ourselves.”

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