Texas Sues the Feds Again -- This Time Over Refugees

by | December 3, 2015

By Brian M. Rosenthal

Texas state officials on Wednesday sued the federal government and a local nonprofit in an attempt to keep out a family of six Syrian refugees who are scheduled to arrive in Dallas on Friday, setting up the first legal fight over the Obama administration's plans to take in more refugees from the war-torn country.

Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the lawsuit in federal court, asking for a temporary restraining order to block the entry of the Syrians in light of "reasonable concerns about the safety and security of the citizenry of the State of Texas." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell were named in the suit, in addition to the nonprofit, the International Rescue Committee, which is coordinating the move.

"We have been working diligently with the International Rescue Committee to find a solution that ensures the safety and security for all Texans," said Bryan Black, a state health commission spokesman, in a news release announcing the lawsuit, "but we have reached an impasse and will now let the courts decide."

A spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee, which had been warned of the possibility of legal action and had pledged to move forward, said the group "acts within the spirit and letter of the law."

"We are hopeful that this matter is resolved soon," said the spokeswoman, Lucy Carrigan.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment.

The suit, the first of its kind in the United States, marked a sharp escalation in the new battle between the federal government and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who promised last month to block all Syrian refugees from the Lone Star State.

Other states agree

About 30 other governors took similar positions after terrorists with ties to the Syria-based Islamic States killed at least 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13. No other state has sued, although Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has been sued for his position against refugees and on Wednesday expressed displeasure with a Catholic group's plans to resettle a family there later this month.

President Barack Obama has stood by his plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, arguing that strict and lengthy security protocols already are in place.

Legal experts largely have agreed that the governors have little authority to block Syrians because refugee resettlement is a federal responsibility carried out by the federal government and resettlement groups.

Michael Olivas, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said the lawsuit filed by the Texas officials is all but certain to fail.

"They know that they can't win this case. The states don't get to do this, any more than they get to have their own foreign policy or deploy an army to another country," Olivas said. "This is complete political grandstanding."

The lawsuit cites a provision in federal law requiring refugee resettlement groups to "coordinate" with state officials and argued the state faces the risk of "irreparable injury."

The family set to arrive in Dallas by Friday is made up of a man named Tamman and his parents, his wife and their two children -- a 7-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter -- according to Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, an aid worker assisting with the move.

Weiss-Armush, president of DFW International, a Dallas nonprofit that helps residents from other countries, said the family currently is in Jordan and was planning to board a plane Thursday with tickets recently purchased by the U.S. State Department after a lengthy review process.

Apartments waiting

Two apartments already have been prepared for the family on the border of Dallas and the northern suburb of Richardson, said Weiss-Armush, noting that Tamman would live close to a half-brother, Faez al-Sharaa, a 28-year-old who resettled with his wife and two children in February. Faez, who has said he fled Syria in early 2013 after being detained at gunpoint, works at Wal-Mart and is looking for a second job, Weiss-Armush said.

Faez also was resettled by the International Rescue Committee. The group, which is based in New York but has branches in Dallas and Abilene, was among the first to declare its support for Syrian refugees and drew headlines earlier this week when it was reported that Texas officials had threatened legal action if it allowed in a Syrian.

The organization responded by holding its ground.

"We will continue to abide by the terms of our agreement and continue to resettle refugees, including Syrians, in Texas," the group wrote to the state health commission Wednesday.

The agency also is working to resettle another family of Syrian refugees, according to Carrigan, the spokeswoman. That couple and their young children are expected in Texas next week, she said.

Tamman's family is being seen in the refugee resettlement group as a key test case, said Weiss-Armush, who wondered if Abbott himself will show up at the airport Friday.

Weiss-Armush said she did not know if Tamman or his family knew the importance of their case.

"I don't think they know. They're obviously focused on trying to get to safety," she said. "I'm not sure that they quite understand the situation."

(c)2015 the Houston Chronicle