Greg Abbott does not speak for Texas.
Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Texas to escape persecution or political violence, and Texans have often offered their hearts, lands and money to the dispossessed. What has changed that makes it so easy for Governor Greg Abbott to declare Texas closed to Syrian refugees fleeing the murderous violence of ISIS and other rebel factions in their homeland? (Of course, Abbott cannot keep Syrian refugees out of Texas, but he can make certain the state does not cooperate in their re-location.) I spent a few minutes searching old newspaper archives to see how Texas handled refugees in the past.
When Russia began a purge of Jews in 1888, a Texan named J.B. Brown offered to give 100 acres of land to each Jewish family who wanted to relocate to Motley County on the plains of West Texas. Similarly, in 1939, a search was made around Texas for land that might be purchased for the relocation of European Jews. The city of Plainview notified Governor James Allred that 46,000 acres could be made immediately available if needed. There’s no evidence that any families took these offers, but the offers were at least made.
In 1956, when Hungarians revolted against oppressive Soviet control, people in Dallas welcomed refugees. Eighty-seven were greeted at Love Field by a local delegation, with the Southern Methodist University band playing the Hungarian national anthem, and the Lone Star flag of Texas joined by the national flags of the United States and Hungary. As The Dallas Morning News reported: “Refugees from blood-drained Hungary representing such diverse occupations as laborers, musicians, teachers, knitters and typists, Saturday will land in hospitable Dallas—their peaceful haven after bloody riots.” However, one group of six refugees had refused to come to Dallas because they believed the city was still the Wild West that they had seen in Hollywood movies. It was our violence they feared, not us fearing theirs.
(Indeed, Dallas continues to exhibit its welcoming spirit. The Morning News reported yesterday that Mayor Mike Rawlings said “he didn’t see what authority any mayor or governor had to keep legal U.S. residents out of a city or state. He said no one has contacted him about Syrian refugees but, if they did, it would be ‘the spirit of Dallas’ to help in a crisis.”)
When Cuban refugees started arriving in 1961, Texas Methodists, Baptists and the Catholic Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth organized to find them new homes and new jobs. “No church is too small to help meet the refugee problem,” the Texas Methodist wrote in an editorial. Will the churches of Texas be as welcoming to the Syrians now?
Similarly, Texas Quakers and Catholics in 1982 organized an underground railroad to help those fleeing violence in El Salvador find refuge in Texas by going around federal immigration officials. At one point, it was estimated that 25,000 Salvadorans were living illegally in Houston alone. Both sides in El Salvador’s civil war engaged in terroristic acts and death squads. Nothing could guarantee that some terrorists had not entered the country, nothing except the belief that most, if not all, of these people simply wanted to live their lives in peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the 1970s, Texas welcomed 27,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
A push by Republican presidential candidates to ban Syrian refugees “does not reflect what we’ve been hearing from our constituencies, which are evangelical churches across the country,” said Jenny Yang, vice president for advocacy at World Relief, an evangelical organization that helps resettle refugees. “Most of the people have been saying we want to continue to work with refugees, that what happened in Paris … doesn’t reflect who refugees are.”
The United States so far has admitted roughly 2,100 Syrians since the conflict in the country began in March 2011. To be allowed in, refugees have to undergo the most stringent security checks of any traveler heading to the United States, according to the State Department. Officials from the Obama administration on Tuesday began reaching out to the media and lawmakers in a bid to explain the screening process, which takes an average of 18-24 months.
Meanwhile, faith-based groups have also stepped up their advocacy efforts for refugees. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement expressing distress over calls by elected officials to halt the resettlement program.
“These refugees are fleeing terror themselves — violence like we have witnessed in Paris,” said the statement by Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the conference’s committee on migration. “Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees, I call upon our public officials to work together to end the Syrian conflict peacefully so the close to 4 million Syrian refugees can return to their country and rebuild their homes. Until that goal is achieved, we must work with the world community to provide safe haven to vulnerable and deserving refugees who are simply attempting to survive.”
Since the Paris attacks, World Relief has used a website to urge people to contact their governors to express their support for resettling Syrians. The Anti-Defamation League also has spoken out in favor of helping the Syrian refugees, noting that U.S. wariness to accept Jewish refugees during World War II is an example that must not be repeated.