Refugee resettlement groups throughout the country are, thankfully, back to their usual work of finding new homes for refugees following this week’s ruling by a federal judge in Maryland temporarily barring the implementation of Trump’s executive order 13888, signed this past September. That order, part of a much broader package of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee and anti-asylum-seeker measures pushed by hard-line adviser Stephen Miller, was intended to allow cities, counties and states to opt out of the refugee resettlement program. And since new funding streams for the resettlement agencies were due to kick in on Jan. 21, based on estimates of how many refugees were to be resettled in each region of the country in the year beginning in June 2020, agencies had been scrambling to obtain approval letters from governors and local officials by the Jan. 21 deadline.
Mostly they were successful in this, but last week they suffered a body blow when Texas governor Greg Abbott announced that his state would accept no additional refugees in the upcoming year.
Federal Judge Peter Messitte’s ruling gives the refugee resettlement agencies some breathing space, and, for now at least, prevents Texas from turning its back on the thousands of refugees whom resettlement agencies had intended to resettle in the Lone Star State.
But there’s no room for complacency: The battle over refugee resettlement isn’t anywhere near over yet. In fact, the injunction staying the implementation of the order is only a temporary measure, in place while the legal challenge against it plays out, and the government can, and almost certainly will, appeal Messitte’s decision. Hours after the ruling, the White House press office released a statement saying that it was “preposterous” and indicating that the government was reviewing its options with an eye to an appeal.
Prior to the injunction, several other cities and counties had scheduled debates in the coming weeks on whether to exclude refugees. And in addition to Texas, seven other Republican-led states had held back sending letters to the State Department affirming that they would receive refugees. If the Trump administration does file an appeal, it will be doing so with an eye on these states and the volume of noise coming from the GOP base regarding the continued presence of refugees.
And it’s not just about geography; it’s also about raw numbers. A few weeks after Trump signed executive order 13888, he approved yet another reduction in the cap for the number of refugees to be admitted in 2020, reducing it from President Obama’s proposed cap of 116,000 in 2016, to 18,000 this year — by far the lowest number in the history of the program. Some of Trump’s team, including Miller, wanted to go even further and entirely end refugee resettlement in the country.
In Texas, Governor Abbott, who had long campaigned against allowing Syrian refugees to move to Texas, saw his moment. Late last week, Abbott wrote a letter to the State Department saying Texas would be the first state in the country to utilize the provisions of executive order 13888 and entirely close its doors to refugees — placing Texas in the dubious company of the cities and counties that had already opted to make use of the executive order: Springfield, Massachusetts; Appomattox County, Virginia; and Minnesota’s Beltrami County.
Abbott’s stunningly cruel action was a direct affront to every big-city mayor in his state, all of whose cities have been at the front line of refugee resettlement nationally over the past decade. In 2009, Texas resettled 8,212 refugees. While the numbers dipped slightly over the following years, the Lone Star State has, year in year out since then, become the new home of thousands of refugees. Even in the Trump era, with the overall number of refugees dramatically down, it resettled about 1,700 refugees in 2018 and more than 2,400 last year.
For the mayors of cities, such as Houston, Dallas, El Paso, San Antonio and Austin, the influx of refugees was a boon. They signed onto a letter, authored by 100 mayors from around the country, letting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo know that they and their communities would welcome the opportunity to continue resettling refugees. And they reiterated this position to Abbott as well.
The Texas governor’s subsequent decision to ignore their pleas represented not only a slap at his urban constituents and their elected political leaders, but also a frontal assault on the refugee resettlement agencies, which receive State Department funding for offices in areas that are actively working to resettle refugees. This infrastructure has taken decades to build up, since Albert Einstein helped found the International Rescue Committee in the years following Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Trump’s executive order, and the usage of its provisions by Abbott, were very much intended as acts of wanton destruction designed to eviscerate these agencies and put their staff out of work, and thus to weaken the ongoing ability of organizations in the United States to work with refugees from around the world.
In the wake of Abbott’s extraordinary move, several other states looked likely to follow suit. Indeed, his nativist power grab threatened to open the floodgates, providing cover for other conservative officials to also batten down their hatches, throwing refugees to the wolves in order to sate the GOP base’s increasingly intolerant views toward nonwhite, non-Christian, non-wealthy immigrants. For, while more than 40 states had agreed to continue accepting refugees as of early January, seven states in addition to Texas had held back on committing one way or another. All were Republican-led: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Wyoming.
Were Florida (which, if Cuban migrants who reach its shores are included, has the country’s largest refugee resettlement program) and Georgia (which routinely resettles between 2,500 and 3,000 refugees per year) to lock out refugees, the effect would be truly calamitous. And even if states as a whole didn’t close down their refugee resettlement programs, as Trump clearly hoped they would do, a number of cities and counties around the country also appeared to be readying themselves to exclude refugees.
On Wednesday, however, in a fierce rebuke, Federal Judge Peter Messitte put the brakes on this process. Messitte’s 31-page ruling, in a case brought by three resettlement agencies, declared that Trump’s executive order was illegal. Not mincing words, the judge excoriated the administration for deliberately undermining the terms of the 1980 Refugee Act and flying “in the face of clear Congressional intent.” He deemed the order “arbitrary” and “capricious;” wrote that it would cause irreparable harm if implemented; and described the denial of access to refugees as undermining the public interest.
So, for now at least, there is a ruling in place barring implementation of executive order 13888. Which means that Abbott’s mean-spirited, demagogic power play has failed. Refugees will still be resettled in Texas. And so, too, they will continue to come to Georgia, Florida and all the other states where conservative governors were, perhaps, thinking about shoring up their right-wing support-base by attacking vulnerable, desperate, traumatized refugees.
There are many, many, deeply shameful, brutal, policies vis-à-vis immigrants in the Trump era. There is the caging of children; the bottling up of asylum seekers in dangerous, violent camps in Mexico; the removal of other asylum seekers to so-called third-country “safe havens,” such as Guatemala and El Salvador — countries that are, in fact, amongst the world’s most dangerous places; the shredding of the Temporary Protected Status program, and the ongoing attempts to eliminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; the efforts to impose de facto wealth requirements on immigrants by mandating that they purchase private health insurance; the efforts to deny green cards to those deemed “public charges” because they or their families have accessed public food or medical assistance. And so on.
To understand Trumpism one has to understand the festering, raw, white nationalism of Trump’s immigration policies. One has to grapple with the moral implications of the codification of cruelty and the systematic demonizing of immigrants. Nothing better showcases this cruelty and this demonization effort than the locking out of refugees and the administration’s never-ending attempts to encourage discrimination against these most vulnerable people.
In the days ahead, as the government decides whether to appeal the ruling by Federal Judge Peter Messitte, we all need to show that we are ready to act in solidarity to protect refugees from this most vicious of American presidents and from those, like Abbott, who have chosen to follow him on his sordid journey.