No state in America resettled more refugees in the past year than Texas. And in the state capital, the mayor says the influx has been a boon.
“It’s brought in industrious, hardworking people. It’s brought greater exposure to the world and to different cultures,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. “It’s a positive for the community.”
But it may end. Under policy changes announced by the Trump administration late last month, Adler’s neighbor in the governor’s mansion could opt to block refugee admissions to Texas next year. Trump’s executive order requires state and local governments to consent in writing before people can arrive, meaning a state could ban refugees even when a city is prepared to welcome them, and vice versa.
That veto power is unprecedented in the history of U.S. refugee resettlements.
Trump highlighted the change at a Thursday night rally in Minneapolis, blaming Washington for bringing in a large number of Somalis — a remark that prompted many in the crowd to jeer their refugee neighbors.
“You should be able to decide what is best for your own cities and for your own neighborhoods, and that’s what you have the right to do right now,” Trump said as images of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who came to the United States from Somalia as a refugee, flashed overhead. “And believe me, no other president would be doing that.”
But critics — including governors, mayors and resettlement managers — say the move is potentially crippling for a program long seen as the global gold standard but now reeling under assault from a hostile White House. They also say it opens the door to more demagoguery by Trump, increasingly emulated by others.
“This is another sign the administration is looking to absolutely decimate the refugee resettlement program,” said Jenny Yang, vice president for policy at World Relief, an evangelical Christian organization that helps new arrivals get their start in the U.S.
The new policy, Yang said, will give politicians looking to whip up xenophobic sentiment the chance to “decide who lives in their community based purely on immigration status.”
“That’s extremely alarming,” Yang said. “It harks back to the days of segregation.”
Many details of how the refugee ban will work, and who will get to implement it on behalf of a state or local government, are still being worked out amid a 90-day period to formulate the new policy.
So far, officials have been cautious about saying whether they will exercise the veto. None of the 27 Republican governors and other state officeholders contacted by The Post said definitively that they would move to block refugees. But several said they support giving states that right.
“There is an array of challenges — financial, legal and public safety, to name a few — that states or localities face when compelled to accommodate refugee populations,” said the office of Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall. “States deserve to be heard before those decisions are made.”
A spokesman for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — who threatened to pull his state out of the refugee resettlement program in 2016 — did not respond to a request for comment.
The new veto power is the latest blow to a system for welcoming refugees that long enjoyed bipartisan support, but that critics say has been dramatically weakened under Trump.
For decades, the United States resettled more refugees than any other country — and often more than all other countries combined. Democratic and Republican presidents endorsed the program, and Ronald Reagan celebrated it in his farewell address, highlighting America’s welcome to refugees as proof that America stood “for freedom.”
But under Trump — who has speculated that refugees are a “Trojan horse” bent on attacking the U.S. from within — the White House has slashed resettlement totals, allowing Canada to speed ahead. Last month, his administration said the cap for the coming year would be 18,000. That’s the lowest in four decades and down 84% from the highest-ever cap, 110,000 during the final year of the Obama administration.
Trump bragged of the cuts at his Thursday night rally, prompting loud cheers.
As the numbers have fallen, the infrastructure to support refugees has shriveled; more than 100 refugee resettlement offices have closed or suspended resettlements in recent years, according to a report by Refugee Council USA.
Meanwhile, the number of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide is the highest on record — more than 70 million, according to UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.
The administration’s refugee policies “send a terrible message at a terrible time,” said Nazanin Ash, vice president for public policy at the International Rescue Committee. “The gap between need and resettlement slots is the biggest its ever been.”
The White House said the lower totals were needed to focus resources and attention on the surge of asylum-seekers at the Mexican border. But refugee advocates say they believe the lower cap, coupled with the state and local veto, are part of a broader strategy to weaponize the issue and limit not only illegal entry to the United States, but legal paths, too.
“This all seems designed to make it more difficult and more unpopular to resettle refugees,” said Stuart Anderson, a George W. Bush administration immigration official and now executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy. “It gives an elected official who wants to make a name for himself a platform to say, ‘Oh, these refugees are going to be dangerous so we don’t want them.'”
Unlike asylum-seekers who arrive on their own in the United States, refugees being resettled are thoroughly screened in advance by Homeland Security and need to be approved for entry before they can arrive.
Federal officials have long coordinated with state and local leaders about how and where to resettle the newcomers, with refugees distributed in small towns and big cities across the nation.
But by giving state and local leaders the chance to veto new arrivals, the process could be scrambled next year. While refugees will be able to move once they are resettled, even to areas that have enacted bans, there may not be any support for them once they get there. Family reunifications could also be complicated if a new arrival’s relatives live in a place that has exercised the veto.
But recent history suggests that at least some state local leaders will use the veto. In 2015, following terrorist attacks in Europe that came amid a historically large influx of asylum-seekers, 31 governors said they opposed letting in Syrian refugees. All but one were Republicans.
A year later, Mike Pence — then the Indiana governor, now vice president — sought to stop resettlement agencies in his state from getting reimbursed for the cost of providing social services to Syrians.
The courts ruled against that move, as they have with other attempts by state or local officials to keep refugees out.
Trump’s executive order is likely to prompt pro-refugee groups to file suit.
Authority over refugee and immigration policy “is exclusively federal,” said Melissa Keaney, a senior staff attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Project, one of the groups contemplating a challenge. “There’s been a couple of hundred years of case policy on that.”
If the courts don’t stop the order, state and local governments could begin to block refugees as soon as January.
Others offered implicit criticism, saying that the Trump administration should be focused on providing protection to more people — not fewer.
“Our refugees make friends, get jobs, contribute to their communities and become a beautiful part of the fabric of our state,” said a spokesman for Utah’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert. “We are glad they are here, and welcome more of them.”
But Adler, Austin’s mayor, said he is concerned the state will veto new admissions, and that other areas will get the benefits his city has enjoyed from welcoming refugees — including nearly 400 in the past year.
If that happens, other areas may pick up the slack.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said in an interview that refugees had long been a vital part of the state’s culture, and he would welcome the chance to take in more if they’re turned away elsewhere.
“The loss of other communities,” Polis said, “can be our gain.”