By Brian M. Rosenthal
Texas officials are escalating their opposition to Syrian refugees with a new message aimed specifically at resettlement groups that have indicated they will accept people fleeing the war-torn country: change your mind or risk getting sued by the state.
Texas health commissioner Chris Traylor issued the first lawsuit threat over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in a letter to the Dallas branch of the International Rescue Committee, which said earlier this month that it supports accepting Syrian refugees.
"We have been unable to achieve cooperation with your agency," Traylor wrote in the letter, which was released to the Houston Chronicle late Sunday, adding that, "Failure by your organization to cooperate with the State of Texas as required by federal law may result in the termination of your contract with the state and other legal action."
Similar letters are expected to be sent to any refugee resettlement group that takes a similar position against Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican is among more than 30 governors who declared that they will not accept Syrian refugees due to security concerns in the days after terrorists with ties to the Syria-based Islamic State killed at least 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13.
Abbott's office said Sunday that the governor supports the letter and the potential actions laid out in the letter, including the lawsuit threat as well as the possibility of cutting off funding to the uncooperative refugee resettlement groups.
International Rescue Committee representatives in Dallas and the organization's New York City headquarters could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a faith-based organization that has ties to refugee groups and has expressed concern about Abbott's position, decried the letter in an interview with the Chronicle.
"This letter should raise serious concerns for refugees currently receiving assistance in Texas, and also for legislators -- who should be asking what fiscal impact the Texas Health and Human Services Commission could be bringing down on the state through its increasingly contentious communications," Moorhead said. "The health commission interacts collegially and effectively every day with multiple federal agencies, so it's astonishing to see these kinds of communications coming from the agency."
Legal experts largely have agreed that states cannot unilaterally block refugees from a specific country because federal law takes precedence over state law on immigration matters. The experts say the federal government can simply work directly with local resettlement groups to place Syrians with them.
Abbott, a constitutional lawyer and former Texas State Supreme Court justice, has insisted he has the authority, citing a provision in federal law that requires refugee resettlement groups to "cooperate" with state officials.
The letter marks another escalation in a political battle just days after federal officials formally told refugee resettlement groups in Texas and elsewhere that President Barack Obama's administration does not believe that governors can block refugees.
Obama has stuck to his plan to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next fiscal year, saying it would violate the country's values to turn people away and that there are strict protocols in place that should assuage security concerns.
The new letter echoed that position, referencing the provision in the law and also devoting several paragraphs to explaining the logic behind Abbott's position. Texas takes more refugees than any other state, the letter noted, and security concerns have been raised by several officials, including the director of the FBI.
"Rather than continue on your current path, in violation of the Governor's directive," the letter said, "please contact my office no later than Monday, November 30, so that we can, indeed, work together 'in close cooperation' as required by federal law."
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