AUSTIN -- Organizations that provide aid to refugees are pushing back against talk of closing the door to Syrians fleeing bloody civil war in their home country.
Caritas of Austin executive director Jo Kathryn Quinn launched a Monday morning news conference quoting from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, "Give me your tired, your poor." The organization is one of several nonprofit and faith-based groups to receive a letter from the state Health and Human Services Commission commanding they discontinue any plans to resettle Syrian refugees, on the orders of Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas).
"It felt in some ways threatening," said Quinn, who estimates it could cost local refugee service providers 40 jobs and $2.9 million. It's also confusing, she explained, "We're not sure exactly how we move forward and what our rights are within the law because refugee services is ultimately a federal mandate."
"There is a question of the authority of a state doing that in the face of the federal law, which actually would preempt state action," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told KVUE Monday. "But I think Governor Abbott's concerns are well justified from the standpoint of wanting to be reassured that the vetting process and the security needs of the American people are put at the forefront."
Cornyn supports legislation passed by the House to halt the Syrian refugee program pending additional oversight, but not a "religious test" as advocated by some of his colleagues, including presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cornyn warns the long-term fix is resolving the Syrian conflict, and is critical of the Obama Administration's strategy. Specifically, he suggests ground forces will be needed in addition to air strikes.
"It doesn't have to be American forces," Cornyn said. "It could be a coalition of U.S. and Sunni Arab forces, people that have skin in the game because they've got local concerns about what ISIS is doing to their country, whether it's Syria, Iraq or the like."
According to the Health and Human Services Commission, 211 refugees and 23 asylum seekers from Syria have been resettled in Texas since 2015. The commission also provided a breakdown of Syrian refugee arrivals to Texas, as well as a chart of programs, funding sources and eligibility requires.
"Some of them have been through barrel bomb attacks," explained Refugee Services of Texas CEO Aaron Rippenkroeger, whose organization keeps up with families for years while helping them learn English, find a job and assimilate. "People don't fall off the radar after they arrive to the United States."
Rippenkroeger understands the security concern, but hopes people learning about the refugee program will put much of it to rest.
"It's an enormous priority for all of us involved in the program. We want the administration and our elected officials to be having these discussions, ensuring that the American people are comfortable with this process, comfortable with the people coming to our country," said Rippenkroeger. "We are."