By Brian M. Rosenthal

The federal government on Wednesday informed refugee resettlement agencies in Texas and across the country that states do not have the authority to refuse to accept Syrians.

The statement, made in a letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle, appears to mark the first time federal refugee program officials formally have rejected statements by governors, including Greg Abbott of Texas, that their states will not accept any Syrian refugees.

It also may signal that federal officials will place Syrians here and elsewhere regardless of governors' wishes.

"States may not deny (Office of Refugee Resettlement)-funded benefits and services to refugees based on a refugee's country of origin or religious affiliation. Accordingly, states may not categorically deny ORR-funded benefits and services to Syrian refugees," wrote Robert Carey, director of the office, adding that states and agencies that do not comply would be violating the law and "could be subject to enforcement action, including suspension or termination."

Carey's two-page letter also emphasized that refugees seeking to come to the United States undergo heavy scrutiny over an average of two years of waiting, a point that President Barack Obama and other federal officials have been trying to make in recent days.

Abbott's office declined comment on the letter.

A spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees refugee resettlement in the state, said the letter will not change its position.

"The Health and Human Services Commission will continue to follow the directive of Gov. Abbott, which calls for the State of Texas to not participate in the resettlement of Syrian Refugees," said the spokesman, Bryan Black.

Wednesday's letter tracks with what legal experts have been saying in the days since Abbott and more than 30 other governors said they would not accept Syrian refugees due to security concerns fueled by terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month. The governors, almost all Republicans, announced their positions just after the Nov. 13 attacks, in which terrorists with ties to the Syria-based Islamic State killed at least 130 people and wounded hundreds of others.

Abbott, a constitutional lawyer and former Texas Supreme Court justice, has cited a specific part of federal law that he says gives him authority to block Syrian refugees. Experts largely have disagreed, however, saying that on matters of immigration and migration, federal policy trumps state preference and local agencies can be made to take Syrians by the federal government.

Obama has repeated that he stands by his plan to allow up to 10,000 Syrians to resettle here in the next fiscal year.

More than 200 Syrian refugees were resettled in Texas during the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, according to the state health commission. Twenty-one more have been resettled since the beginning of September.

Overall, there are 70,000refugees from 78 countries living in Houston alone and about 4,800 who came to Harris County just last year, mostly from Iraq and Cuba.

Carey's letter came the same day that Obama made a special statement at the White House to reassure Americans that there is no specific and credible threat to the country right now. It also came the same day that the Texas Catholic Conference announced that its refugee resettlement agencies would continue to accept Syrian refugees and would work with agencies to ensure safety is upheld.

"The Texas Catholic Bishops encourage all parties -- including governmental leaders, political officials, and advocates -- to avoid impulsive judgments in setting public policies regarding the placement of Syrian refugees, the organization said in a statement. "The horrors of modern terrorism are frightening, but they demand from us a strong renewal of our faith and our commitment to Christian teachings and the common good."

Another faith-based group, Texas Impact, has said it believes there is momentum toward finding a way to accept the refugees.

Nevertheless, the issue is expected to continue to spur intense debate, on the presidential campaign trail and in the state.

Earlier Wednesday, the state House Human Services Committee announced it would get an update on Abbott's directive at a meeting scheduled for Dec. 15, with testimony expected from officials and experts.

(c)2015 the Houston Chronicle