In the days after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced he would block any Syrian refugee–"any one of whom could be connected to terrorism"– from coming to his state and he wasn't alone.
Dozens of governors rushed to shut their doors out of fear even as the federal government assured them refugees were vetted by the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, the National Counterterrorism Center, the State Department, the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and the FBI.
The legal showdown in Texas over the first Syrian refugees set to be resettled there since the Paris attacks has broader implications that may reveal just how little power states have to stop refugees from a new start in their state.
The case, which was filed by Texas's Health and Human Services Commission against the federal government and International Rescue Committee last week, alleged that the feds and the resettlement agency "left Texas uninformed about refugees that could well pose a security risk to Texans and without any say in the process."
The state argued that they had already taken their share of refugees over the last 40 years, that they had worked beside the International Rescue Committee in good faith and they wanted more information before accepting refugees including health records and security backgrounds. Yet, federal law requires a low threshold of information to be shared with states. it's "consultation" requirement is glaringly vague making it hard for Texas to build a case on.
So the IRC did not back down. Confident, that they and the federal government had communicated in compliance with refugee laws, the IRC moved forward with plans to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas.
In an earlier case in Indiana, a different resettlement agency relented when after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) announced he would bar families from his state. A Syrian couple and their child who had fled Homs after their clothing business became a casualty in the civil war four years ago were swiftly redirected to Connecticut.
The Texas case is the first time a state raised the stakes against the federal government and so far, they've found themselves on shaky ground. On Friday, the state withdrew its immediate demand for a temporary restraining order barring the entry of any Syrian refugees. While the state is still asking for a hearing and injunction "to ensure we get the information necessary to adequately protect the safety of Texas residents," they won't be able to stop the first new families from coming.
That did not stop Attorney General Ken Paxton from declaring victory. Paxton released a statement Friday boasting they had received additional information from the feds about the refugees coming to the state, which is why they lifted their initial demand, but Paxton was not clear about what that new information actually was.
"Texas shouldn't have to go to court to require Washington to comply with federal law regarding its duties to consult with Texas in advance,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said. “Our state will continue legal proceedings to ensure we get the information necessary to adequately protect the safety of Texas residents.
Under the Refugee Act of 1980, it is the president, not Congress or states who set the annual number of refugees permitted to the United States. This year, the president has announced he will accept at least 10,000 Syrians, a dramatic increase over the roughly 2,000 the United States has accepted and settled since the civil war broke out in Syria five years ago. Where incoming Syrian refugees are placed is also up to the federal government. And once a family is resettled, they are free to leave any time they want and move elsewhere.
Texas wanted IRC to reveal "demographic, medical and security" information, which DOJ argued in their brief is not required under the 1980 refugee law.
According to court documents, the IRC plans to resettle 21 people in Texas beginning Monday, and refugee advocates are optimistic that a quick fizzle of the Texas case may make it hard for other states to block refugees.
"It sends out a warning message to other states ," says Cecillia Wang, Director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project. "What has happened so far is a sign that these governors who are trying to engage in this kind of discrimination are hitting a brick wall."