A prominent Texas faith organization signaled Friday that refugee resettlement agencies in the state may not comply with Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to turn away Syrian refugees, writing a letter “to express shock and dismay” with the directive.
The governor’s order “constitutes an unprecedented attempt on the part of a state agency to pressure private, nonprofit organizations to violate federal law and their federal contractual obligations,” wrote Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, which works closely with resettlement agencies affiliated with religious institutions.
The letter asked the state to convene a meeting with resettlement agencies and federal authorities to clarify whether Abbott has the authority to issue such a directive.
Moorhead told the Houston Chronicle that among resettlement groups, “there seems to be some energy developing around convening them as a coalition to work on this issue.”
Moorhead’s letter came hours after the state’s top health official wrote refugee resettlement agencies in the state to say Texas was invoking its legal right to “require that you provide immediate and ongoing consultation with the Health and Human Services Commission Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) regarding any plans that may exist to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas.”
“If you currently have plans to participate in the resettlement of any Syrian refugee in Texas, please notify us immediately, but not later than 4:00 p.m. Friday, November 20, 2015,” executive health Commissioner Chris Traylor wrote, adding the agencies should discontinue those plans and “further, please notify us immediately if, in the future, you learn that a Syrian refugee is proposed for resettlement with your organization.”
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office appears headed toward a legal showdown with refugee resettlement agencies and their sponsoring faith organizations over Abbott’s efforts to keep any Syrian refugees from resettling in Texas in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks.
Following Abbott’s directive, Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor on Thursday sent a toughly worded letter to 19 refugee resettlement agencies in Texas — including Caritas and the Refugee Services of Texas in Austin — asking that they scrap any plans to resettle Syrian refugees in Texas and that they notify his office by 4 p.m. Friday if they had any plans to resettle Syrians in the state.
Refugee resettlement is generally a federal matter done in cooperation with national and local nonprofit, often church-based, resettlement agencies. The states play a supportive role and pass federal money onto the local agencies.
However, in his effort to make good on his pledge to keep Syrian refugees from coming to Texas, Abbott, a former state attorney general, is relying on a section of the 1997 legislation authorizing the refugee resettlement program. It states that it is the intent of Congress that “local voluntary agency activities should be conducted in close cooperation and advance consultation with state and local governments.”
Traylor cites that provision in his letter, and warns, “We reserve the right to refuse to cooperate on any resettlement on any grounds and, until further notice, will refuse to cooperate with resettlement of any Syrian refugees in Texas.”
“It’s a very disturbing effort by the state to coerce nonprofit organizations into ceasing the important services that they normally provide to vulnerable refugees to allow them to integrate into our community,” said Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law.
“The agency is seeking to force nonprofits to join the governor’s misguided policies that discriminate on the basis of national origin,” Gilman said. “Most disappointing of all is that those harmed will be families who have fled unspeakable violence in Syria, who have undergone a lengthy and cumbersome process to ensure that they present no threat, and who desperately need protection and support to recover some stability in their lives here in the United States.”
That’s religious nonprofits that Abbott is trying to coerce. At a time when for-profit corporations have been granted the right to impose the religious beliefs of their owners on their employees and when plaintiffs in a lawsuit who happen to be pastors getting subpoenaed is taken as an assault on freedom on religion. Again, this is Greg Abbott exerting government power to influence what religious organizations can do. I’m at a loss for words here. Thankfully, Lisa Falkenberg was able to find a few.
On issues like birth control, abortion and gay marriage, conservative politicians routinely charge into the fray like moral warriors, vowing to protect the sacred constitutional right to religious liberty.
Hobby Lobby. Kim Davis. They got your back.
But when it comes to a basic tenet of Christianity – caring for the stranger – the warriors have turned their swords against Scripture.
What would Jesus do, Greg? Feel free to ask a bishop if you need help with that.