Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) speaks with US President Donald Trump (L) during a briefing on hurricane relief efforts in Dallas, Texas, on October 25, 2017. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Legendary frontiersman David Crockett famously said: “You can go to hell but I’m going to Texas.” That sentiment seems less apt these days in the Lone Star State, after Governor Greg Abbott recently announced that Texas will not accept any new refugees in 2020.
This has made Texas the first state to reject refugee resettlements under a new rule from President Trump, which says that states and municipalities must give written consent before refugees can be resettled. About 40 other governors have signaled their willingness to continue accepting refugees—but not Abbott.
“Texas has carried more than its share in assisting the refugee resettlement process,” Abbott said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Since FY2010, more refugees have been received in Texas than in any other state. In fact, over that decade, roughly 10% of all refugees resettled in the United States have been placed in Texas.”
The governor also noted that Texas has been feeling the brunt of migration issues at the southern border due to a “broken federal immigration system.”
That justification, however, has found little resonance among those who deal with refugees in Texas.
“This would amount to a whopping blow to people who need our help the most,” says Rebecca Lightsey with American Gateways, who has worked with thousands of people who have escaped hardship in their home countries. “We’d urge the governor to decide otherwise. Be Texas friendly.”
According to Pew Research, the Trump administration has set a cap on the admittance of total refugees to the U.S. in 2020 at 18,000—that’s down from 30,000 in 2019. From 2017 to 2019, the U.S. took in about 76,000 refugees. That’s down too. In 2016 alone, the U.S. accepted some 85,000 refugees.
As for Texas, the number of refugees settled there was already dropping dramatically, some 64 percent year over year. According to the Texas Tribune, there were 1,697 people settled in Texas over the last fiscal year ending September 30. Some 4,768 were admitted during the same period the year before. Texas currently boasts an estimated population of 2.8 million people.
Criticism of the governor’s decision only intensified after he doubled down by saying that groups working with refugees should instead prioritize other Texans in need. He singled out the state’s homeless population, which has recently gained attention—and notoriety—in the state capital, Austin, after new laws were passed allowing the homeless to camp in public spaces.
“I am putting my citizens first,” Abbott says. “We have challenges in the state of Texas that must be addressed by these very same nonprofit organizations. We have a growing homeless population in the state of Texas, and I refuse to allow the state of Texas to go down the same pathway of what we’ve seen in California.”
That argument has been criticized for conflating two separate issues, with those working for nonprofit resettlement agencies pointing out that their federal funding comes with limits of use; hence it can’t be used elsewhere.
Further, others note that the economic burden of helping refugees is a moot point, especially in a state as wealthy as Texas, which with a $1.8 trillion GDP would be the 10th largest economy in the world if it were a stand-alone country, and to whose wealth refugees actually end up contributing.
“Texas is a famously wealthy state,” says Charles Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York City. “It can afford to absorb a small number of refugees which may cost money in the short term but will almost certainly not in the medium- and long-term.”
A 2015 study by New American Economy found that refugees in Texas had a combined spending power of $4.6 billion and paid a total of $1.6 billion in taxes.
“This is an economic mistake, but more than that, it’s a humanitarian mistake,” Lightsey says.
The moral imperative has seen the Texas governor—who is a practicing Catholic—taken to task by Texas’s Catholic bishops, who issued a statement that called his decision “discouraging and disheartening,” and added, “As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien.”
In response to the bishops, the governor’s office noted that no one seeking refugee status in the United States will be denied it because of the Texas decision, nor would refugees be prevented from moving to Texas after initially settling in another state.
The inference appears to be that the rest of America can pick up the slack. But can and should it? The wider question of what a nation like America should be doing for others when increasingly its own citizens are suffering appears more pressing than ever. Beyond homelessness, the country is rent by the likes of joblessness, drug addiction, despair, and suicide.
A recent sobering article in Foreign Affairs details what it calls an epidemic of “deaths of despair” in the United States, which has resulted in “an astonishing development: life expectancy at birth for Americans declined for three consecutive years, from 2015 through 2017, something that had not happened since the influenza pandemic at the end of World War I.”
America isn’t alone in experiencing these kinds of frictions. In Italy, as in other European countries, refugees and migrants have often been well cared for thanks to European Union funds, while the native poor have been neglected. This has resulted in a surge of support for the Lega party, which is skeptical of immigration.
“One thing cannot be denied,” says Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of the Catholic Herald. “Every country has an upper limit as to how many refugees and migrants it can take. You are not required to help (foreign) others if it means hurting (native) others. The welfare and the survival of the country must come first.”
But, Lucie-Smith emphasizes, the U.S. is a long way from the likes of Lebanon, which has the highest proportion of migrants in the world and has been “seriously destabilized by immigration.”
“The real problem we have, it seems to me, is one of perception,” Lucie-Smith says. “The migrants have all the coverage in the media, whereas the poverty-stricken drug addicts in places like West Virginia, or in the suburbs of Naples, get very little coverage of sympathy. Certain types of poverty are ‘sexy,’ others not. Certain types of help send out a big virtue signal, others not. There is a lot of posturing in this. Posturing is not Christian.”
Abbott doesn’t appear in his actions to be succumbing to the temptation of virtue signaling. But according to his critics, he may be guilty of another type of signaling that involves political posturing for expedient gain.
Refugee advocates are also concerned that Abbott’s decision would separate families, as some family members were earlier resettled in the state and are now awaiting the arrivals of their loved ones.
For now, Abbott’s decision remains theoretical. A federal judge has halted Trump’s executive order. While an appeal is expected, organizations in Texas such as American Gateways are hoping to move forward with the resettlement of refugees who have already been pre-cleared by authorities.
“The traditional view is that refugees need help, and are entitled to it under international law, but economic migrants must fend for themselves, generally speaking,” Lucie-Smith says. “This is rather piquant in America where the people who arrived in the nineteenth century got very little government help—and many were genuine refugees.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.