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No, Texas Can't Ban Syrian Refugees, Rules Judge

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a new bid by Texas officials to block Syrian refugees, describing the source of the state's fear of letting in nine more people from the war-torn country as "largely speculative hearsay."

By Brian M. Rosenthal

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a new bid by Texas officials to block Syrian refugees, describing the source of the state's fear of letting in nine more people from the war-torn country as "largely speculative hearsay."

The ruling will allow the refugees -- a couple and their six children, as well as a 26-year-old woman seeking to be reunited with her mother -- to come to Houston on Thursday.

"The (state) has failed to show by competent evidence that any terrorists actually have infiltrated the refugee program, much less that these particular refugees are terrorists intent on causing harm," U.S. District Judge David Godbey wrote in a brief ruling just two hours after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton requested an emergency order barring the refugees.

The request itself was another surprising about-face for the Republican attorney general. He made a similar plea involving the same refugees last week, only to drop that request two days later.

In a court filing, Paxton said he submitted the new request after hearing two speeches by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and receiving a statement from Texas Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Robert Bodisch.

"Evidence came to light ... that terrorist organizations have infiltrated the very refugee program that is central to the dispute," Paxton's office wrote.

Godbey, a Dallas-based judge who joined the court in 2002 after being nominated by then-President George W. Bush, wrote in his two-page ruling that state officials had a legitimate interest in preventing terrorism and probably should receive more information from the federal government about refugees.

"Nonetheless," he wrote, "The Court finds that the (state) has failed to establish by a preponderance of the admissible evidence that there is a substantial threat of irreparable injury."

'Utmost priority'

Legal experts have said for weeks that Texas would not prevail in any attempt to bar refugees because the federal government has sole control over the refugee resettlement program, despite declarations by more than half of the nation's governors that they would not accept refugees due to security concerns.

The governors, almost all of whom are Republicans, announced their positions after terrorists with ties to the Syria-based Islamic State killed at least 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13. Reports indicted that a Syrian refugee passport was found near an assailant's body, although it turned out to be fake.

Paxton's office did not answer questions about the judge's ruling but issued a statement late Wednesday.

"Federal law requires the Obama Administration to work with the states in the refugee resettling process," the statement said. "The safety and security of Texans is our utmost priority, and we will continue our efforts to get information from the federal government and ensure Texas has a seat at the table moving forward."

At the very least, the ruling put Paxton back in step with Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Republican who had indicated he disagreed when the attorney general backed off the first request for an emergency order. Paxton said then that he wanted to focus on receiving more information from the federal government about the refugees.

Paxton continued his lawsuit against the federal government and the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization helping Syrian refugees move to Texas, but Godbey dealt the state a setback Monday when he said he would not rule on the case until mid-January at the earliest.

That cleared the way for 12 refugees to enter the state that day. A couple and their four children came to Houston; a man, his parents, his wife and their two kids went in Dallas.

'Fleeing war, violence'

Abbott was one of the first governors to announce his opposition to Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

Before the judge's ruling, Abbott issued a statement Wednesday praising Paxton's request.

"It is essential that a judge consider halting the Syrian refugee process -- at least on a temporary basis -- to ensure refugees coming to the United States will be vetted in a way that does not compromise the safety of Americans and Texans," Abbott said in his written statement.

Social services agencies, however, expressed displeasure with the state's actions.

Beer Moorhead of Texas Impact, a faith-based group organizing support for Syrian refugees, said "the state's hauling its nonprofit contractor into court for the second time in as many weeks is creating unprecedented regulatory uncertainty for all resettlement agencies."

Other groups expressed relief at the judge's ruling.

Rebecca Robertson of the ACLU of Texas, which is representing the International Rescue Committee in the case, said Wednesday's ruling meant that refugees already on the way to Texas could start their new lives "without delay."

Said Robertson: "We are pleased that the Court refused to let the state of Texas interfere with humanitarian aid to people fleeing war and violence."

(c)2015 the Houston Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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