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State of Texas pulls request for temporary halt of Syrian refugees, but wants hearing

7 Dec

By Dianne Solis and Tom Benning

Despite objections and courthouse maneuvers by Texas officials, a group of Syrian refugees are to arrive next week — including a family of six that will settle in the Dallas area.

A legal challenge by state officials fizzled on Friday, when the state withdrew its request for a temporary court order that would have halted the resettlement.

That occurred after the Justice Department, the ACLU and others filed lengthy briefs on behalf of a refugee relief agency and the federal government, contending that Texas was seeking “unwarranted veto power over individual federal refugee resettlement decisions.”

The state on Wednesday sued the federal government and the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit relief agency, to block the relocation of any additional Syrian refugees in Texas. The suit is pending before U.S. District Judge David Godbey of Dallas.

Lawyers for the state have requested a hearing next week on whether Godbey should issue an injunction requiring the federal government to “comply with its statutory duty to consult with Texas in advance of resettling refugees,” according to a news release from the Texas attorney general’s office.

In the meantime, three families and one individual who are refugees from Syria’s civil war are to arrive next week, according to court documents.

The Syrian family headed to the Dallas area is a couple, their children, who are 3 and 6, and the children’s grandparents, according to the court papers. They already have relatives living in the area; those relatives arrived earlier this year.

In all next week, 21 Syrian refugees are scheduled to arrive in Texas, the court documents said. Two families with children will settle in the Houston area, as will a 26-year-old single woman who will join her mother already living there.

Friday’s turn of events represented a pronounced retreat from the position set forth by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott just two weeks ago, when he declared: No Syrian refugees, period.

Security concerns about the refugees were raised by Abbott and many other governors, mostly Republicans, after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 persons. The Islamic State, one faction involved in Syria’s civil war, claimed responsibility for the attacks. A Syrian passport was found near the body of one Paris suicide bomber, although its authenticity has been questioned.

Abbott said earlier this week that national security experts had expressed a “very real concern” that terrorists could infiltrate Syrian refugee groups and use the guise of refugee status to enter the United States and commit acts of mass violence. The governor has cited testimony from FBI Director James Comey on whether it was possible to conduct proper security checks on Syrian nationals.

On Friday, after the state dropped its request for a temporary restraining order to halt the resettlelement of refugees in Texas, Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch reaffirmed the governor’s “will to continue the lawsuit against the federal government.”

State Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “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. Our state will continue legal proceedings to ensure we get the information necessary to adequately protect the safety of Texas residents.”

In their brief, Justice Department attorneys said the state “has made no showing that these refugees pose any threat, much less an imminent one, to the safety or security of Texas residents or any other Americans.”

The filing noted that since the start of fiscal year 2011, 243 Syrian refugees have resettled in Texas.

With regard to the new arrivals, it said, Texas “does not explain how these specific refugees, mostly children, their parents and in one case their grandparents — pose a danger to anyone anywhere, let alone to the state of Texas.”

Delaying the refugees’ resettlement, the brief said, “would prolong their suffering and inflict further hardship upon them that is unjustified.”

Attorneys for the government and the International Rescue Committee added that Texas had failed to show that continued resettlements would cause “irreparable harm” or any grave injury that would justify “interference with the federal government’s authority.” The IRC is one of nine resettlement contractors working with the State Department.

The federal Refugee Act of 1980 requires that the government consult regularly with states about the “sponsorship process” and “the distribution of refugees among the states,” Friday’s court filing by the Justice Department noted.

However, it added, there is no requirement to provide states with “demographic, medical, security and other case information” about individual refugees.

Lawyers for the government and the IRC said a State Department unit that oversees refugee matters has been in regular contact with state refugee coordinators. The court documents included extensive attachments offering details of the coordination efforts.

President Barack Obama has defended the thoroughness of security measures governing refugee relocations. Two former heads of the Department of Homeland Security — Michael Chertoff, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, and Janet Napolitano, an Obama appointee —  wrote to Obama to say the vetting process was extensive, taking up to two years.

The legal battle in Dallas is one of many possible feuds as more than two dozen state governors question the resettlement of Syrian refugees. The ACLU has already filed suit against Indiana, where a fight has rolled out with Gov. Mike Pence that forced a Syrian refugee family to divert to Connecticut.

Texas “basically brought a breach of contract claim, which is nonsensical,” said Cecilia Wang, the San Francisco-based director and attorney with the ACLU foundation’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “They are trying to make cooperation into an edict that you do what the governor says, even when they don’t have that power,” said Wang, who represented the IRC along with other legal teams.

Some lawyers not associated with the Syrian case speculated the state withdrew its request for a temporary restraining order because of the difficulty of winning such a legal challenge. The hurdles aren’t quite as high when seeking a permanent injunction, said Robert Loughran, an attorney with the global immigration law firm of Foster LLP in Houston.

“In a TRO, you must show an immediate danger and irreparable harm,” Loughran said. “Theoretical arguments there is some chance angels on a pinhead” might cause harm won’t win a temporary restraining order from a judge, he said.

The need and the complexity of the worst refugee crisis since World War II are rising, he said. Loughran compared the Syrians seeking refuge to the Jews on board the St. Louis ocean liner in 1939 who were turned away at port after port. That event was chronicled in the book and the movie The Voyage of the Damned.

Some worried the state litigation could have a chilling effect on the work of refugee organizations. “There are tremendous counter-voices that have shown very much that the state continues to be a welcoming for refugees,” said Elissa Steglich, a clinical professor at the law school at the University of Texas.

Texas has led the nation in recent years in the resettlement of refugees, surpassing California. Last fiscal year, ended Sept. 30, 2015, it led in resettlement of Syrian refugees with 184 persons locating here. But the overall refugee flow into the U.S. from the Syrian diaspora is still small. More than 4 million are considered refugees, and about half of the Syrian population, once 23 million, has been displaced.

On Friday afternoon, in Dallas, Nabil Kalo, a Syrian immigrant, gave thanks to the U.S. government for the legal fight. “The fact is American people are very helpful for refugees coming with the right visas—not like it happened in Europe,” said Kalo, referring to desperate refugees who have surged across certain borders there.

Kalo, 46, fled Homs, Syria, where fighting has been particularly deadly, about two years and entered the U.S. on a visa. He now has temporary protected status, which provides him with a work permit. Kalo, an electrical engineer and former business owner, works at a Wal-Mart as a stocker.

His wife and four sons are in Turkey, where they have had interviews to officially become refugees in the U.S. Kalo said he came first to see if there was any possibility to begin a new life in Texas.