Sabah is one of nearly 57,000 refugees who have resettled in Texas over the past decade, of whom about 12,000 are from Iraq. Like most refugees, she didn’t want to leave behind nearly everyone and everything she knew. But facing death threats, she and her husband had no choice. They requested refuge in the United States and specifically asked to be resettled in Fort Worth.
She knew little about the area, she says, but had been told it was warm, friendly, inexpensive and “good for families.” Most important, she’d heard that Texas was a place where she could find what refugees seek most: “safety and self-sufficiency.”
Her intel was good. Texas, whose motto is “Friendship,” has long welcomed families such as hers, resettling more refugees than any other state since 2010. At least it did until recently, when the state abruptly slammed its doors.
On Friday, Texas became the first state to take up President Trump’s likely illegal offer to let governors close their borders to new refugees. This was despite pleas from mayors, lawmakers, faith leaders and employers, from both parties, who argued that continued refugee resettlement was both a moral and economic imperative.
No matter. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott declared that Texas was full.
In his letter explaining his decision, Abbott conflated unauthorized immigrants with refugees who are, by definition, coming here legally, and only after exhaustive screening. He suggested that Texas lacks the resources to absorb additional refugees, playing into stereotypes of refugees as dangerous, destitute and typically on the dole.
Perhaps if he got to know refugees such as Sabah, he’d think differently.
Sabah and her husband worked as interpreters for Western media organizations covering the Iraq War. Almost immediately, they were threatened for “betraying” their country. When a family member was left disabled by a bomb, they decided it was time to leave. That was in 2008; it took them another six years — and multiple interviews, security checks and medical exams — before they were approved to come to Texas.
They had some extended family in the Fort Worth area, people who had come earlier using visas for translators who had assisted the U.S. military. Their fellow Iraqis welcomed them. So did refugee resettlement workers affiliated with Catholic Charities. They picked up Sabah and her family at the airport, brought them to an apartment stocked with groceries and helped them acclimate. In the weeks that followed, workers and volunteers ferried the family to medical appointments; taught Sabah how to use the bus; and enrolled them in “cultural orientation” classes covering points such as building credit and avoiding phone scams.
As for Sabah’s twin goals — safety and self-sufficiency — her family achieved the first immediately. And self-sufficiency? That took less than a year.
It’s true that when her family arrived, they were enrolled in a slew of public services, including food stamps, rent and utilities assistance, and Medicaid. But that was temporary. By their eighth month, Sabah says, the last of those programs ended, as the family transitioned from Medicaid onto her husband’s employer-sponsored health plan.
Both parents now work full time — he at a warehouse, and she for another refugee services agency, where she helps pay forward the support she received. Sabah tries to give nervous, homesick newcomers more confidence by sharing her own story. She and her husband have been proud taxpayers for years, she tells them. As of this past fall, they are naturalized American citizens.
Soon, they will be homeowners, with space enough for a new baby due in June.
Sabah’s story is typical. Anti-immigrant rhetoric, from the 19th century onward, has long cast newcomers as irretrievably lazy and poor. But multiple studies — including one commissioned by the Trump administration! — have found that after an initial adjustment period, refugees have a net positive economic impact. They are more likely to be employed and to start their own businesses than their native-born counterparts.
Seven other states are still considering whether to close their borders to refugees. They have only until Jan. 21 to decide whether to seize the valuable economic opportunity that Abbott has waived, and to show the world there’s still room at the inn.