Is there a complicated German word for the feeling of disappointment in a person for whom your expectations were so low that you didn’t know you could still feel disappointed in them? That’s the way a lot of Texans feel right now about the incomprehensible decision by Governor Greg Abbott, who leads the “friendship” state, to exclude Texas from participation in the federal refugee resettlement program, the first governor of either party to do so, which he announced on Friday afternoon. Something like “schadengreg,” maybe.
Elected officials announce things on Friday afternoons when they want to bury the news, often because they feel some degree of shame about their decisions. But Abbott’s late-Friday release didn’t quite fit this pattern, because the decision itself indicated an incapability to feel shame. No doubt this fascinating paradox will go in the folder kept by Abbottologists across the state, who have long struggled to formulate an answer for the question, “What is this dude’s whole deal, exactly?” Never a barn burner topic to begin with, it is becoming an ever-less-entertaining subject of discussion as the years go by.
We’re awash in moral outrage these days, for better or worse. It’s exhausting, and it’s not surprising that people look away. So instead of rambling about our duty to each other in our short windows on earth and parsing the lessons in scripture that Abbott, as the grandson of a pastor, has surely been imbibing since he was a tot, let’s talk instead about what the refugee resettlement program is and what it isn’t. Let’s talk about why the governor’s decision makes no sense from a purely practical perspective, and why, ultimately, it can’t be explained as a policy choice at all.
Let’s say you learned over the weekend for the first time that Texas has been housing refugees, and that you have concerns. That’s entirely reasonable. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t make you racist. You might well want to help people in need, but you might wonder why the governor, who knows this thing better than you, saw fit to end it. Natural questions might include: Is Texas being overrun with refugees? Is this an amnesty for illegal immigrants? Does the program exacerbate the problems at the border, somehow? Do refugees become a drain on public resources? Are they a danger?
We’ll walk through them in turn and show our work, but the shortest answer to all these questions is “no.” The troubling thing is that the governor knows full well that the answer to these questions is “no.” So we’re left with the question of what Abbott’s real issue with the program is, and you don’t have to be an uncharitable person to wonder if it’s something a lot darker. Unfortunately he hasn’t really explained himself. (His office didn’t respond to my request for comment, but I’ll happily update this story if I hear back.) He wrote an odd and misleading letter announcing the move to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and his office has otherwise declined to engage with reporters other than to criticize their stories on Twitter.
The main rationale offered by Abbott in his letter is that Texas “has been left by Congress to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken immigration system.” On Friday, Abbott’s press secretary made a statement of sorts by retweeting someone arguing that “Texas is disproportionately affected by the border crisis.” This might leave the impression that Abbott is taking a stand against chaos on the border, which would be politically popular. But that is wrong. The refugee resettlement program has nothing at all to do with the border or illegal immigration.
People accepted as refugees by the United States are by definition legal immigrants. They’ve already gone through an extensive vetting process by federal and international agencies, proving that they face great risk if they were forced to return to their home countries. They’ve waited years and years to find a new home, sometimes in dire overseas camps. Border security and federal refugee resettlement are wholly distinct issues, and it would be a lie to pretend otherwise.
The Omaha World-Herald hosts a database where you can find information about refugees officially resettled in the United States since 2002. According to the database, Texas has helped shelter about 86,000 refugees through the program, as the state added a total of 7 million new residents. Those 86,000 people account for about 0.3% of the total population of Texas. They’re spread all over the state, from Abilene to Woodville, but concentrated in big cities with preexisting immigrant populations.
These are not the people trying to get over the Texas-Mexico border right now. Indeed, very few of them come from Central America at all. Since 2002, no refugees settled in Texas came from Mexico. Two came from Guatemala, 47 from Honduras, and 267 from El Salvador. In fact, the most popular Spanish-speaking origin country is Cuba. Some 2,800 people fleeing the communist dictatorship found shelter here, just like Ted Cruz’s dad once did, through the federal program. Helping Cubans, of course, is a project with longstanding conservative support. By and large, the refugees America accepts are people who are exiled from countries most Americans couldn’t place on a map—like Myanmar, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
They have stories like Gilbert Tuhabonye, who spent nine hours buried under a pile of his dead and dying classmates at a schoolhouse in Burundi, waiting for death in a pool of fire and blood and caustic chemicals as genocidaires, his former neighbors, waited outside with machetes, before he broke a window with someone’s charred femur and ran all the way to a hospital, a track scholarship at Abilene Christian University, American citizenship, and a home in Austin. They’re fleeing vicious governments, ethnic cleansing, wars, climate-change-fueled disaster, and genocides. They’re artists, pro-democracy activists, faith leaders, muckraking journalists, and everything else you can imagine.
There is, of course, a hypothetical point at which a society begins to bend under the stress of refugees. The countries that host the most refugees are middle-income countries near war zones, like Turkey, Jordan, and Pakistan, and the accumulation of desperate people causes those nations a lot of problems. But we are far, far from that point. And it’s a truism that helping a single refugee is meaningful. The country, and Texas, doesn’t have to take everyone who needs help to do good. Imagine that there’s a civil war in Canada, and a million people flee from death camps. It seems clear that it would be better to give 100,000 Canadian refugees shelter instead of just 1,000. Just the same, it’s a better deed to give a home to ten rather than zero. Zero is clearly the least acceptable option.
The U.S. helps a very modest number of people every year, arguably many less than it should or could. The Trump administration has already gutted the refugee program—in the 2018 fiscal year, America accepted just 22,491 refugees, a number that could be entirely settled in Texas without anyone realizing they had arrived. Texas took in just 1,697 of that number—a rounding error, a smaller population than that of a large apartment complex in Dallas or Houston. It’s said that the population of Austin grows by 152 people a day, which means Austin has added more people since the new year than the whole state took in refugees in 2018.
This, Abbott says in his letter, represents a disproportionate burden, the state having already “carried more than its share in assisting of the refugee resettlement process.” He notes that Texas has taken 10 percent of refugees resettled through the program, perhaps because Texas has just under 10 percent of the nation’s population. There’s clearly no flood of refugees here, but you might ask, do these people themselves represent a disproportionate burden? Is this small number of people a huge drain on state resources? No. It’s certainly true that when they first arrive, many refugees need public help in the form of food stamps and access to health care, in the same way that you would need help if you were, say, a war orphan who had lost everything you ever owned and had to reestablish yourself in Belarus.
But the performance of refugees in America is closely tracked and quantified, and even the Trump administration’s own numbers show that most refugees work very hard to establish themselves, to integrate into our (extremely complicated and not-always-very-welcoming) society. Soon, they’re paying taxes. They learn English, their kids become doctors, their grandkids get liberal arts degrees and join sketch comedy groups—you know, the American dream. And they find ways to give back—just like Gilbert Tuhabonye did.
Perhaps one of the most head-scratching parts of Abbott’s rejection of refugees is that faith-based groups do most of the hard work. Helping refugees is not entirely, or even largely, the province of bleeding-heart libs. Much of the groundwork is done by evangelical Christians, people who might well have voted for Abbott, along with Catholic and Jewish organizations. “It’s gut-wrenching,” Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s an abdication of everything Texans claim to stand for: freedom of opportunity, freedom of religion, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
If you still find yourself feeling uneasy about the prospect of refugees coming to Texas, then, finally, know this. Abbott’s letter doesn’t mean that refugees won’t come to Texas. It means that they won’t get federal help if they do. It means that, say, a female political dissident from Myanmar who was subjected to punitive gang rape and smuggled herself out in the lower reaches of a container ship may not be placed in an apartment in Houston near her cousin’s family, but instead in Fargo, North Dakota. If she then decides to move to Houston, she could forfeit federal assistance and be worse off, less able to integrate successfully. And the charities that could help her will be stretched thinner on the ground.
For all these reasons and more, the refugee resettlement program was, until the Trump administration, a popular, bipartisan program. It still is, for the most part. Leaders of major Texas cities and counties of both parties all indicated that they wanted the program to continue. Eighteen Republican governors have given their blessing, among them strong Trump supporters like Utah governor Gary Herbert, who wrote in a letter to the president this fall that Utah “empathize[d] deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life,” he said. “They become productive employees and responsible citizens.”
Abbott plunged ahead on this alone, but he brought Texans along with him. His actions are ultimately our actions. So is Abbott’s decision “un-Texan?” Aspirationally, yes. But as a matter of fact, Texas is what Texas does. Come next legislative session, perhaps we can change the state motto, “Friendship,” to something a little more fitting. Maybe: “Too late, suckers!”