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Texas officially withdraws from refugee resettlement program

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). (Joel Martinez/ (McAllen Monitor via AP)

Texas has officially withdrawn from the nation’s refugee resettlement program, Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) office said Friday. But that won’t stop the federal government from continuing to help refugees relocate here.

Citing security concerns, Abbott’s office said Texas will no longer participate in the federal program, which helps thousands of refugees from around the world resettle in the state. State officials threatened last week to withdraw from the resettlement program if the federal government did not “unconditionally approve” its amended state plan to only accept refugees who “are fully vetted and do not present a security threat” — part of Texas’s efforts to keep Syrian refugees out of the state.

“Texas has repeatedly requested that the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the director of national intelligence provide assurances that refugees resettled in Texas will not pose a security threat, and that the number of refugees resettled in Texas would not exceed the state’s original allocation in fiscal year 2016 — both of which have been denied by the federal government,” Abbott said in a statement.

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Federal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. They’ve previously stressed that refugees are only settled in the United States after lengthy, stringent security screenings that can take up to two years. Security officials with the state department conduct background and biometric screenings, and process applications received through the United Nations, which operates refugee camps around the world.

Texas’s withdrawal from the resettlement program is the latest in its efforts to keep those fleeing war-torn Syria from entering the state. Following terrorist attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people, Abbott and other Texas Republicans raised concerns about refugee screening.

In November, Abbott directed resettlement nonprofits in Texas to stop accepting Syrian refugees — a move the federal government said exceeded Texas’ authority. The state then sued to block the arrival of Syrian refugees from the state, but the case was dismissed. Texas has appealed the ruling.

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Texas and U.S. officials had been negotiating refugee resettlement plans for fiscal 2017, which starts Oct. 1. State officials had asked federal officials to tell them by Friday whether they would approve or reject Texas’s amended plan. The proposal also said Texas would only accept the same number of refugees relocated to the state in the 2016 federal budget year: 7,802. The U.S. State Department had proposed to increase the number of refugees resettled in Texas by 25 percent, state officials previously said.

Refugee resettlement efforts are completely funded by the federal government, with the state serving as a middle man. Once refugees are cleared, one of nine national resettlement organizations places them in communities across the country, where local nonprofit groups contracted by the state use federal dollars to help them find jobs, learn English and enroll children in school.

Although the state will no longer oversee that contracting and disburse funding, refugees will continue to be relocated in Texas. The federal government can appoint another entity — probably a nonprofit organization — to coordinate resettlement efforts. It’s a setup that was in place in six states in 2015, resettlement officials have said.

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Refugee services providers and religious leaders have promised to continue resettlement efforts and condemned Abbott’s threat to withdraw from the program.

“Texans are welcoming and compassionate people,” 13 refugee assistance providers said Thursday in a joint statement. “We will continue to uphold those values as we help the most vulnerable among us rebuild their lives in peace and freedom.”

Texas nonprofit groups that resettle refugees say volunteer turnout has increased — in some cases dramatically — since the state’s elected officials started trying to bar Syrians fleeing violence at home.

Texas is appealing a federal judge’s dismissal of its lawsuit against the federal government and a refugee resettlement agency over the placement of Syrian refugees in the state.

This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune.