Defunding state refugee plans has unintended consequences

By Eric Vining, Columnist

Recent attacks in Paris and Lebanon by the Islamic State have renewed U.S. concerns over President Barack Obama’s proposal to allow more than 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States.

Since Monday, more than half of the nation’s governors, mostly Republicans, have issued statements, directives and even state executive orders intended to block Obama’s proposal.

In an open letter to Obama on Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott expressed his concern with the president’s proposal to allow refugees fleeing the Islamic State to settle in Texas.

Citing security concerns, Abbott declared in his statement that, “…opening our door to [Syrian refugees] irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

Shortly following Abbott’s statement, many of the nation’s Republican governors followed suit with their own statements condemning the president’s proposal. As of Wednesday, 27 governors have either objected to or directed state agencies to deny refugees from entering their states.

While the move appears to be mostly political in nature (the U.S. Constitution explicitly delegates issues of immigration to the federal government), the move could have dangerous and unintended consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing persecution all over the globe each year.

During the 2014 fiscal year, Texas welcomed more than 7,200 immigrants into the state, accounting for nearly one-tenth of all refugees accepted into the United States last year.

At the end of the 84th legislative session in May 2015, Texas lawmakers approved more than $88 million in funding for the state’s Refugee Assistance Program during the 2016-2017 biennium, more than $18 million more than was allocated for the previous biennium in 2013.

This state funding is designed to complement federal assistance provided by the U.S. Department of State’s Resettlement Support Center, which oversees refugee immigration into the U.S.

Most of this money is used to assist displaced persons once they arrive in the United States, and similar programs exist in most U.S. states. In Texas, a portion of this taxpayer money is also used to fund nine nonprofit agencies that assist federal and state governments with relocating refugees.

While state governors explicitly lack the power to block federal policy, they can defund programs like Texas’ Refugee Assistance Program that complement federally funded immigration programs. While it wouldn’t necessarily stop the government from placing refugees in states, it would certainly make it more difficult to do so.

Even worse, however, are the consequences to refugees who are attempting to escape persecution, instability and war outside Islamic State-controlled regions. In 2014, only 1.3 percent of the refugees moving to Texas were from Syria.

While the security of one’s own people is an important consideration here, defunding refugee placement programs at the state level hurts the other 98.7 percent of refugees to Texas who don’t reside in Syria.

If lawmakers and the American people wish to bar refugees from Syria, it needs to be done at the federal level by the president and Congress. Having individual states defund refugee programs is irresponsible and unfair to the thousands of other displaced persons seeking refuge in the U.S. as a result of conflict outside Iraq and Syria.

Eric Vining is a junior political science and journalism dual major from Houston.