Texas files federal lawsuit to block Syrian refugee family's resettlement
Greg Abbott speaking at FreePac, hosted by FreedomWorks, in Phoenix, Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

State files federal lawsuit against International Rescue Committee and Obama administration to stop family who fled Syria in 2013 from arriving in Texas


Texas has filed a lawsuit aiming to block Syrian refugees from settling in the Dallas area, in the latest salvo of an escalating row between the state, an aid group and the federal government.

Relatives of Faez and Shaza, who fled Syria for Jordan in 2013 and were settled this year in a Dallas suburb, are expected to arrive as early as Friday.

They are being helped by the Dallas branch of the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC), but Texas officials sent letters to IRC asking them to halt their assistance to the refugees. The humanitarian group issued a statement on Wednesday refusing to comply with instructions from Greg Abbott, Texas’s Republican governor, and Chris Traylor, the head of the state’s health agency.

In response, Texas’s Health and Human Services Commission filed a federal lawsuit against the IRC and the Obama administration this week that asks the court to stop the family from arriving in Texas in the next few days.

It accuses the defendants of potentially endangering public safety by failing to cooperate closely and share sufficient information about the background of the refugees.

“The federal government and the Committee have left Texas uninformed about refugees that could well pose a security risk to Texans and without any say in the process of resettling these refugees,” the suit claims.

The IRC earlier said that it was open to holding “constructive conversations” with senior Texas officials and that it “has a cooperative agreement with the US Department of State and is bound by its terms with regard to the placement of refugees in the United States. We will continue to abide by the terms of our agreement and continue to resettle refugees, including Syrians, in Texas.”

Traylor wrote to the IRC last week to request their cooperation and to warn the group it risks being sued if it continues to support Syrian refugee resettlement in Texas. After they signalled their intention to proceed, he wrote to them again on Tuesday to reiterate his request for a halt and to ask for more detailed information about the proposed new arrivals.

“We understand that voluntary agencies and the federal government have access to the information necessary for resettlement. However, the State has not been given access to any of the information necessary for meaningful participation,” the letter says.

But the IRC issued a statement on Wednesday saying that it “has a cooperative agreement with the US Department of State and is bound by its terms with regard to the placement of refugees in the United States. We will continue to abide by the terms of our agreement and continue to resettle refugees, including Syrians, in Texas.”

Texas has also written to the federal government to request as soon as possible “all demographic, medical, security, and other case information relating to Syrians slated or scheduled for settlement in Texas during the next 90 days.”

The Obama administration announced in September that it intends to accept about 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016. The IRC has to date settled eight in Texas, it said. Overall, more refugees settle in Texas than in any other state.

Abbott is one of about 30 state governors who, along with many Republican presidential candidates, have claimed in the wake of the Paris attacks that Syrians fleeing violence pose a potential security risk to the US because vetting procedures are inadequate, potentially allowing terrorists to enter the country posing as refugees.

The House of Representatives passed a bill last month that aims to pause acceptance of Iraqi and Syrian refugees pending an overhaul of security screenings.

Refugee advocates point out that the process is multi-layered, involves numerous security checks and interviews and can take two years.

Texas’s stance is unlikely to be legally enforceable since immigration is a federal affair. The Obama administration sent a letter to states last month telling them they may not deny federal benefits and services based on country of origin or religion.

However, the state points to a section of federal law which requires states and groups to cooperate, and can at the least create a difficult working environment for humanitarian agencies. A state spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the IRC’s continuing stance.

“The International Rescue Committee welcomes Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor’s response and is heartened to hear that the State of Texas is in consultation with the US Department of State to learn more about the security screening process for refugees,” the IRC statement said.

“We hope that through this process the State of Texas will be persuaded that the refugee security vetting process is a secure one and that the State of Texas will come to recognize that Syrian refugees are the most security vetted group of people who come to the United States. They are also amongst the most vulnerable.”