Refugees need empathy, Texas support, not settlement ban

Russell Smith

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently appeared on “Fox & Friends” to defend his decision to abandon the U.S. refugee resettlement program in Texas — a decision that has received widespread condemnation from nearly every corner of the state. Texas was the first state to say “no” to resettlement, after 42 other governors (from both parties) had announced they would continue to welcome people fleeing from war, oppression and persecution.

Thankfully, a federal judge has blocked the Trump administration’s executive order that provided Abbott with the authority to veto refugees from resettling in Texas, since such action likely violates federal law.

While the courts will eventually rule on the executive order, our hope is that Abbott reverses his decision and comes to understand the truth about refugees, and the resettlement process, and how refugees make our country, our state and our communities stronger. 

Texans are a particularly open and resilient group of people, and the backlash the governor is hearing from Texans regarding his disappointing decision is proof.

The governor’s notion that serving refugees and other populations in need, such as the homeless, is a false and short-sighted suggestion for Texans who can tackle any issue they set their mind to, and the vast majority support welcoming refugees and helping the homeless.

Texas has a strong and extensive network of non-profit organizations that tackle many problems and provide help, comfort and support to a wide array of populations. While Refugee Services of Texas focuses specifically on assisting displaced populations, some similar agencies, like Catholic Charities, provide programs that assist the homeless.

I agree with Gov. Abbott that there is much more we can do to end homelessness and to address the root causes of poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity. However, nonprofits have evolved over the years to address the very problems that government could not or would not address. While there are a few multi-service agencies, most address one or two specific issues or populations to better utilize their resources.

In my career, I’ve had the privilege of running agencies that provided Head Start services to children and families in poverty. These agencies provided mental health services to children and adolescents, funded school reform efforts, engaged artists and writers to do workshops in Title 1 schools, and provided support to people with Alzheimer’s and their family members. 

Each had its unique challenges and funding structures, and each made up a small part of the mosaic of service providers. Had funding for Alzheimer’s been cut, the agency would not have been able to pivot to become a food bank or animal rescue organization, though both are needed services.

The budget for refugee resettlement comes from the federal government and from private sources, such as faith-based groups like church congregations and synagogues, and the spending is to help refugees get a fresh start to become taxpayers and eventually, U.S. citizens.

Refugee Services of Texas has stepped up in recent years to provide services to those seeking asylum, and has a large and growing program providing services to domestic and international survivors of sex and labor trafficking in communities across Texas. We applaud the governor for his leadership on this issue, but we believe we can serve these populations simultaneously and that helping survivors doesn’t preclude welcoming refugees.

Legal immigration through refugee resettlement has long been a strength in Texas for more than 40 years, providing much of the fuel for the great jobs machine that powers the Texas economy. Without the newcomers, it would be impossible for the state to keep growing jobs at roughly double the national rate, economists have said.

 Nearly 178,000 refugees lived in Texas in 2015, according to a study by the New American Economy, and they paid over $422 million in state and local taxes. Their estimated spending power was $4.6 billion, second only to California. By every measure, after a short period of resettlement, refugees are positive tax dollar generators — not tax burdens. Refugees add to the fabric of our communities and our economy.

We urge the governor to drop his opposition to refugee resettlement in Texas and open his heart to welcome refugees with all the pride with which he speaks as a Texan.

Russell A. Smith, LMSW, is CEO of Refugee Services of Texas.