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Fort Worth groups express disappointment over Governor Abbott's refugee decision

Fort Worth Star-Telegram — Tessa Weinberg Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Jan. 14--AUSTIN -- Shocked. Saddened. Disappointed.

Those were just some of the emotions that went through Troy Greisen's mind when he heard the news Friday that Gov. Greg Abbott would not be permitting refugees to resettle in Texas for the fiscal year.

"We just really had been hopeful, and prayerful and also confident that he was going to sign," said Greisen, the director of World Relief Fort Worth, a refugee resettlement agency which has worked since 1980 to help support refugees locally.

Under President Donald Trump's Sept. 26 executive order, counties and states must provide their written consent to allow refugees to resettle within their areas. Nationwide, over 40 governors have consented or signaled their willingness to allow refugees in their states, making Texas the first known state to bar their settlement.

Texas has long led the nation as one of the states that accepts the most refugees nationwide, and Abbott's decision went against the urging of religious groups, state lawmakers and Texas mayors who had pushed for the state to continue permitting refugees.

One of those mayors was Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who had sent a letter to Abbott in November, encouraging him to continue accepting refugees. And in December, Price followed with a letter to the U.S. State Department, expressly giving written consent for their initial resettlement in Fort Worth.

"As Mayor, I've witnessed the mutually beneficial impact of resettling almost 2,600 refugees in Fort Worth since 2016, I don't want to risk fixing anything that is not broken," Price wrote in the Dec. 2 letter. "Their stories and path to the United States are now an important part of our own story in Fort Worth."

According to an analysis by New American Economy, an advocacy organization that researches how immigration affects the economy, 234 refugees were resettled in Fort Worth in 2018, an 84% drop from the city's peak of 1,497 in 2016.

Volunteers with the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth have helped refugees by outfitting apartments, providing mentorship and even assisting with getting driver's licenses. Katie Sherrod, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, said this is a "short-sighted, politically based" move on Abbott's part.

Refugees, "are fleeing the very things we say we oppose. They're fleeing terrorism. They're fleeing despots. They have been through hell," Sherrod said. "And we need to be reaching out our hands and welcoming these strangers, not slamming doors in their faces."

Democrats were quick to condemn Abbott's move, even locally, with Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples saying in a statement Friday that it "smacks of racism and elitism, neither of which has a place in our diverse state."

Both the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and Episcopal Church decried Abbott's decision. In separate statements, the groups stressed the need to welcome the stranger and how refugees add value to local communities.

According to an analysis by New American Economy, refugees in Texas paid $1.6 billion in local, state and federal taxes in 2015, and a separate analysis found Texas would be at risk of losing $17.1 million if it opts out of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for just one year.

In fiscal year 2019, Texas led the nation in resettling 2,458 refugees, or 8.19% of all refugees resettled in the U.S. during that time, according to federal figures. However, it's a sharp decline from just a few years ago amid record lows of refugees permitted to enter the U.S. since the program's founding in 1980.

"It's trickled down significantly, and what this is doing is almost making it come to a complete stop," Greisen said.

Greisen said refugees that have already made a home in Fort Worth were counting on Texas' participation in the resettlement program to one day reunite with family members who are still abroad.

In Abbott's Friday letter to U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Abbott said Texas "has carried more than its share" and cited figures related to apprehensions of migrants at the Texas-Mexico border as examples of the state having "to deal with disproportionate migration issues," and justification for declining to participate in the federal resettlement program.

Abbott, "did allude to this as a border issue, and it's really nothing to do with that," Greisen said, noting that refugees are fleeing their home countries based on well-founded fears of persecution, and have been accepted to resettle in the U.S. after being screened and vetted by the federal government.

"With all the conversations that go around people coming into our country, this is a group of folks who have gone through the process and have come here the way that everybody wants them to come here," Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said in an interview on Friday before Abbott's decision had been made public.

In a statement Friday following Abbott's decision, Price said she would continue to advocate for refugees in Fort Worth while working with the governor and state leaders to "reiterate the importance of Texas being a welcoming state."

"I trust Governor Abbott has not arrived at this decision without careful thought and consideration as for what it means for Texas. Our refugee families in Fort Worth are an incredibly important part of the diverse fabric throughout our community," Price said.

Tarrant County commissioners were set to discuss approving local consent at a county level Tuesday, and ahead of Abbott's decision, Whitley said he's seen refugees acclimate to the community in the past.

"Our country was founded on being a melting pot, and I would hate to see that changed," Whitley said last week before the news of Abbott's decision broke.

Whitley did not respond to a request for comment on Abbott's move, and Bill Hanna, a spokesman for the county, wrote in an email Monday that the commissioners are still set to discuss approving county consent at Tuesday's meeting.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen if the Trump administration's executive order will be overturned before it has a chance to progress further. Three national refugee resettlement agencies filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration in November in an attempt to stop the order from being enforced.

A federal judge heard arguments in the case on Wednesday, and plans to issue a ruling "pretty quickly," according to the Associated Press.

Beginning June 1 refugee resettlement activities must comply with the executive order. And until then, Greisen said World Relief Fort Worth will continue to advocate for policy changes, and help support both refugees who already call Fort Worth home, and those on their way.

"We're definitely not going to just drop this issue," Greisen said.

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