Democratic senators on Wednesday questioned the wisdom of abolishing the Texas office that was set up to resettle refugees in the state. The Office of Immigration and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) has been dormant since January 31, when the governor’s decision to terminate state involvement in refugee resettlement took effect, and nonprofits took over the job.
Senator Don Huffines, a Dallas Republican, said his Senate Bill 260 would “keep Texans safe.” But it’s unclear how that’s the case. The proposal would do nothing to stop the federal government from placing refugees in Texas, but would permanently eliminate Texas’ ability to negotiate with the feds on specifics.
OIRA, created in 1991, negotiated state resettlement plans with the federal government, a process that collapsed under Governor Greg Abbott. Huffines’ bill would permanently pull Texas from the bargaining table.
Senators Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, and Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, argued during Wednesday’s Veteran Affairs and Border Security Committee hearing that SB 260 would needlessly tie the state’s hands in the future. “If conditions changed and we wanted to participate in refugee resettlement again, we would have to pass another law to re-establish the office,” said Rodriguez.
Huffines, who called the federal program a “relic from the Cold War,” said that was the point: “By abolishing the office, the Legislature will have a voice in determining whether Texas re-enters the federal refugee resettlement program in the future.”
The federally funded program resettles people living outside their country of origin who can’t safely return to their countries. Refugees, often while living in refugee camps, are vetted for up to two years by the U.S. government.
More refugees resettle in Texas than any state but California. In fiscal year 2016, the state received 7,802 people, largely from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Iraq and Syria.
Immigrants who arrive at the U.S. border to request protection, like most Central Americans, seek asylum through a different process.
On Tuesday, Huffines tweeted that “refugee vetting is broken,” but he did not elaborate on his security concerns at Wednesday’s hearing and his office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The now-empty office that Huffines wants to abolish helped resettle refugees in Texas by funnelling federal money to nonprofits who provided housing, medical and educational assistance. OIRA also administered special funds for unaccompanied minors and immigrants who’ve won asylum, all without state funds.
In September, the office became a casualty of a high-profile feud between Abbott and the Obama administration over Syrian refugees. Abbott demanded that the federal government cap Texas’ total share of refugees and perform increased security vetting. When the federal Department of Health and Human Services refused, Abbott joined three other governors — Republicans from Maine, New Jersey and Kansas — who pulled out of the federal refugee program in 2016.
“It was an irresponsible political act by the governor over the false issue of security vetting,” said Chris Kelley, a spokesperson for Refugee Services of Texas. ”You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a refugee.”
Abbott’s decision, however, did not ultimately disrupt refugee resettlement in the state. In what representatives for Refugee Services of Texas and YMCA of Greater Houston describe as a smooth transition, the DHHS tapped six Texas nonprofits to replace OIRA on January 31 — an arrangement that exists in at least 12 other states.
“It was a lot to take on in a short time period, but there was no interruption in services,” said Jeff Watkins, vice president for global initiatives of the Greater Houston YMCA. “We’re happy with where we are in the process.”
The nonprofits were already serving refugees in tandem with OIRA, which eased the handoff. Since January 31, nearly 450 refugees have resettled in Texas, including more than 40 Syrians.
The committee left the bill pending Wednesday, with 25 people registering against the legislation.
Nationwide, nearly 40,000 refugees have been resettled so far this fiscal year. President Trump’s March 6 travel ban, now held up in court, would lower the annual cap from 110,000 to 50,000. If it takes effect, agencies may find they’ve already hit the limit, and resettlement would grind to a halt for the rest of the year.