One October evening a few years ago, I was driving through the Hill Country on my way to report a story in San Angelo. Twilight was encroaching when I steered around a blind curve and, to my horror, saw a deer standing in the middle of the two-lane road. I swerved, but it was too late. My Honda Civic clipped the deer and went spinning across the roadway. For a brief moment, time seemed to slow, and I realized that I was trapped inside a 2,400-pound object hurtling out of control. This, I thought, might be the end.
Amazingly enough, I emerged from my car without a scratch, even though it had tumbled into a ditch, slammed into an embankment, and come to rest on the driver’s side. But my feeling of relief quickly faded. I was alone on a rural road with darkness setting in; my cell phone was smashed, and the nearest town was more than twenty miles away. I was, essentially, helpless.
Just then a pair of headlights appeared. I began waving my arms, and a pickup pulled to the side of the road. “Are you okay?” the driver asked as he walked toward me. “What happened?” I told him about the deer and insisted I was fine. He glanced at my now-totaled Civic, its windows blown out, its back end half-crushed. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked again skeptically, flipping open his phone to call for help. He would ask this question several more times over the next two hours while he waited with me as sheriff’s deputies, state troopers, and finally a wrecker arrived.
I’ve been thinking about this experience quite a lot since Governor Greg Abbott declared last fall that Texas would not accept any of the more than 4 million refugees from Syria, where a brutal civil war has killed nearly 500,000. I understand the concern about terrorism, but no act of charity is without some potential for danger. The man in the truck certainly didn’t have to stop that night, and his decision to pull over wasn’t without risk. We were alone together on a dark highway, and he had no idea who I was. I could have been intent on kidnapping, robbing, or killing him; he had no way to know I wasn’t dangerous. That didn’t deter him, though. He saw someone in need of his help, and he offered it.
And he wasn’t the only one. Several other drivers stopped, and even after sheriff’s deputies arrived—after the situation was clearly in hand—nearly every single passing car would slow and the people inside would roll down the window to ask, “Everybody okay? Need any help?” I’d lived in Texas at that point for six years, but this outpouring of concern amazed me.
Once my car was towed, the man with the pickup who’d waited with me drove me back to Austin, dropping me at my front door. It’s one of the greatest acts of kindness I’ve ever received, and it came from a stranger. I’ve recounted this story often to friends and family whenever Texas’s elected leaders have instituted policies that made the state appear especially cruel and uncaring. It helps remind me that Texans are generous of spirit, that they look out for their neighbors and help those in need.
Over the decades our state has often shown that kind of empathy to people from all over the world, taking in scores of refugees fleeing places like Mexico, Central America, Cuba, Eastern Europe, and Vietnam. As the Houston Chronicle observed last year, “If Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement.” In a moment we could all be proud of, Texas welcomed hundreds of thousands of people who fled Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, housing many in stadiums and convention centers turned makeshift shelters. “We are all in this together,” then-governor Rick Perry said. “We will continue to do what it takes, from offering assistance to offering prayers, to get through this together, as one American family.”
As the Syrian refugee crisis began to escalate in the past few years, Texas was as welcoming as ever at first. The United States has accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees, and as the governor’s office has pointed out, between October 2015 and March of this year, Texas settled 2,677 people—though not all Syrians—more than any other state. But the issue has become political.
The tension started when a Syrian passport was found on one of the terrorists who attacked Paris last November, leading to media speculation that he may have masqueraded as a refugee. This proved false. The passport was fake, and authorities later determined that all nine attackers were European. But before the truth came out, a number of governors seized on those initial reports and declared that refugees would no longer be accepted in their states. No one asserted this more forcefully than Abbott, even though there had not been a single incident involving refugees who had already resettled in Texas. “Opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril,” he wrote to the feds.
But Abbott was only posturing, because the states have almost no say over refugee resettlement, and a federal court later tossed out Texas’s legal challenge. The refugees kept arriving, but Abbott pressed on. His latest gambit, orchestrated in late September, was to officially withdraw Texas from the federal program that handles refugees, threatening in a letter to the Office of Refugee Resettlement that his state wouldn’t participate unless the federal government could “ensure that refugees do not pose a security threat to Texas.”
That too was an empty gesture. Refugees will still come to Texas. The federal government pays for resettlement efforts, with nine national volunteer organizations—in coordination with local and state officials and local nonprofits—directing where refugees should be placed. By withdrawing from the program, state leaders simply forfeit what little input they have in the process. But preventing them from coming here wasn’t really the point. For Abbott, who appears to be perpetually protecting his right flank, withdrawal was a political ploy. In fact, it achieves a political trifecta: in one swift move Abbott demonized Muslim foreign nationals, challenged the federal government, and acted as if he was protecting the state from terrorism. It’s a savvy play for an ambitious Republican, though a detestable one that necessitates ugly insinuations about helpless people and that—for all the talk in this state of upholding Christian values—smacks of hypocrisy.
“Empathy must be balanced with security,” Abbott said in a press statement explaining his action. “While many refugees pose no danger, some pose grave danger, like the Iraqi refugee with ties to ISIS who was arrested earlier this year after he plotted to set off bombs at two malls in Houston.”
That’s a reference to Omar Al Hardan, who recently pleaded guilty to providing material support to ISIS. His case is indeed troubling, and the allegations against him are serious. But his case isn’t an indictment of the refugee resettlement program. Al Hardan came to the United States from Iraq with his family in 2009 and had been living in the country for more than five years before allegedly becoming radicalized. No evidence has yet been made public that Al Hardan’s case represents a failure of refugee screening.
In fact, contrary to the rhetoric you hear from politicians like Abbott and Donald Trump, the screening of refugees, though certainly not perfect, is fairly robust. For one, only a relatively small number of families are selected each year by the United Nations for resettlement in the U.S.; they then go through a nine-step process that takes eighteen months to two years and includes separate security screenings by multiple agencies, consisting of conducting two in-person interviews, examining documents, checking fingerprints, and running all their information through various government databases. Of all the people who enter the United States, refugees are subjected to the most scrutiny. It would be far easier and more efficient for ISIS to recruit potential terrorists either already living in the U.S. or in Europe, where citizens can travel to America without a visa or any background checks.
It’s highly unlikely that an ISIS terrorist would come to the U.S. posing as a refugee. How unlikely? A report from the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, noted that between 1975 and 2015, about 3.25 million refugees entered the country and only 20 (or 0.00062 percent) were charged with terrorism. There were three successful attacks—killing 3 Americans over four decades—but there have been none in the past fifteen years. The odds of any single American’s dying in a terrorist attack perpetrated by a refugee in a given year are approximately 1 in 3.4 billion. You’re much more likely to die on a roller coaster (1 in 300 million).
But, of course, it’s not impossible, and I understand that Abbott has to weigh that. There is some risk, though extremely small, involved in accepting Syrian refugees. Just as there was some minimal risk for the Good Samaritan who helped me that October night years ago. Doing the right thing is rarely without risk.
And demonizing refugees is potentially dangerous too. While Abbott’s withdrawal from the resettlement program hasn’t stopped refugees from coming to Texas, it will have an impact. It cynically stokes fear of a threat that barely exists and may make life even harder for Syrian refugees already here. They’re more likely to face discrimination and suspicion; some of their neighbors, classmates, and co-workers may view them as terrorists. It’s easy to see how rhetoric like Abbott’s can contribute to the alienation of American Muslims, the very people best positioned to alert authorities to homegrown Islamic extremists, which, as we saw in San Bernardino and Orlando, are the much more likely source of terrorism. In that sense, denigrating refugees could make us less safe.
More than that, there is the risk that such political pandering could alter the fabric of our state. Already, the gulf between the way Texas leaders welcomed Vietnamese refugees in the seventies—or how Perry opened the state to Katrina evacuees—and Abbott’s current behavior has grown wide indeed. In the short term, the governor’s move has actually spurred more people to offer assistance: Texas nonprofits who aid refugees are seeing a huge surge in volunteers lately, according to the Texas Tribune. That is the Texas spirit. But in the long run, politicians’ repeatedly inflaming people’s fears and resentments, year after year, could eventually warp Texas’s sensibility. It’s not hard to imagine a place where we’re more suspicious of one another, where we don’t readily help our neighbors, where a guy driving along a dark rural highway sees someone on the side of the road and decides not to stop. That’s not the Texas we want to live in. So we should welcome refugee families from Syria, not just because it’s the right thing to do—the Texas thing to do—and not just because it would save desperate people. We should also do it to save ourselves.