Texas’s Governor Is Telling Tall Tales About Refugees

James Gibney

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Greg Abbott of Texas has the dubious distinction of becoming the first U.S. governor to refuse formally to resettle refugees. His rationale reeks of the same cynical dishonesty that has characterized the refugee policy of President Donald Trump.

Texas has already done its share on behalf of refugees, Abbott writes in a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. It’s true that, by sheer volume, Texas has resettled more refugees over the last decade than any other state — about 10% of the nationwide total. But one might expect as much from the state with the country’s second biggest population. Keep in mind that the 50,000 or so refugees it has taken in during that period amount to less than 0.2% of its 2019 population. On a per capita basis, its refugee intake doesn’t put it in the top 10 states, lagging even Maine. And one of the many details Abbott’s letter leaves out is that last year, Texas resettled only 2,500 refugees.

Abbott also says that “Texas has been left to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system” — namely, the influx of asylum-seekers at the U.S. southwestern border. There’s no doubt that this flood of arrivals has strained the resources and patience of many Texas communities.

But refusing to settle refugees will not help Texas solve its border crisis. For one, the number of refugees Texas takes has never been more than a tiny fraction of the undocumented at its borders. For another, the federal government picks up the tab for initially resettling refugees.

The Trump administration has also used the crisis at the border to justify capping the maximum number of refugees that the U.S. will admit in a given fiscal year to 18,000, the lowest level since the U.S. refugee program began in 1980. Yet during a similar surge of asylum seekers in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration maintained refugee admissions at a level more than five times higher than today’s.

Abbott’s animus toward refugee resettlement, like the Trump administration’s, is longstanding. In 2015, Abbott declared that Texas would not accept refugees from Syria and subsequently sued the federal government to stop their placement (the courts dismissed the case). One of the first things Trump did as president was to freeze refugee admissions and institute new vetting procedures for those from “high-risk,” predominately Muslim countries. Never mind the nugatory evidence of previous terrorism by refugees or the fact that they are vetted extensively.

Both Trump and Abbott also ignore important distinctions between refugees and asylum-seekers. Asylum-seekers simply show up at the border. Refugees go through a process coordinated by the United Nations and the U.S. that can take more than two years to complete. Not only are their backgrounds vetted, but they are selected on the basis of personal need and on a policy determination that admitting refugees from a given country advances U.S. interests.

Do refugees impose an economic burden on the states that agree to take them in? It’s hard to say definitively, partly because federal demographic data generally doesn’t break out refugees as a subset of immigrants. But a 2017 Department of Health and Human Services report (which the Trump administration tried to suppress) showed that, from 2005 to 2014, refugees brought in $63 billion more in revenue than they received in benefits. As their time in the U.S. increases, they have higher labor force participation and employment rates compared with similarly aged U.S.-born residents. A 2017 State Department report found that the presence of refugees can “significantly” increase foreign direct investment from their origin countries.

A further note for Governor Abbott: Refugees are generally more educated than family-preference and undocumented immigrants. In Texas, they were as likely to have a college degree as native-born residents, and had a higher employment rate (67% versus 59%).

It’s entirely possible that Abbott, like the president he emulates, cannot be swayed by facts and figures. Nor is it likely he will be impressed by stories about the refugees who helped the U.S. to build the atomic bomb or soldiers such as U.S. General Viet Xuan Luong, the former refugee from Vietnam who now commands U.S. Army forces in Japan. And notwithstanding the opposition of mayors in cities such as San Antonio and Dallas, the politics of his decision in his state are hard to argue with.

So be it. It may well be that the best argument for accepting refugees is moral: Especially for a wealthy nation like America, it’s simply the right thing to do — the Christian thing to do, to put it in terms the governor claims to understand. If the governor won’t take my word for it, then maybe he will listen to the many evangelicals who make the same case.

To contact the author of this story: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.

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