Future for refugees in Texas remains unclear
Governor Abbott’s rejection of refugees leaves Rice community members baffled, seeking action.
Saniya Gayake and Spoorthi Kamepalli have not had many lazy Saturday afternoons in the last year. As co-presidents of Houston Empowering Refugees, the Baker College juniors travel once a week to an apartment complex in Houston’s Hillcroft neighborhood and teach lessons on health literacy to 14 refugee women from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They spend two hours discussing topics like child development, mental health, physical health and family planning, in an attempt to provide the women with tools that might help them integrate into life in the United States.
But the future of programs like HER has been thrown into question following Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s announcement last month that Texas will not be accepting new refugees this year.
The move follows an executive order from President Donald Trump last September requiring states and municipalities to give written consent before refugees can be resettled. Abbott’s move makes Texas the first state to reject resettlements under Trump’s order and reverses Texas’ history of resettling more refugees than any other state since 2010. A few days after Abbott’s decision, a Maryland federal judge temporarily blocked the Trump administration policy — but the ruling could be overturned if the administration appeals.
Gayake said she was disappointed by Abbott’s decision.
“Our community has a responsibility to accept people and support people,” she said. “The decision to not accept people has very implicit and explicit connotations of who is worthy and who is not.”
WHY REJECT REFUGEES?
In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Abbott said resettling refugees placed too much of a strain on Texan resources. But according to Kelsey Norman, a fellow who specializes in refugee studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, these claims are ungrounded because after 90 days of federal funding, refugees are expected to become self-sufficient or rely on support from non-profits.
“The concept that there would be any kind of drain on the economy of Texas is just inaccurate,” Norman said. “The money that refugees use their first 90 days is federal money. It has nothing to do with the state of Texas or his initial complaint that we’re already under such strain because of the border crisis and border security.”
Instead, Norman said she suspects Abbott’s announcement was a politically motivated move.
“[The refugee refusal] seemed like it was more about drawing attention to the border issue than it was about refugees being any kind of strain on the cities in which they’re relocated to,” she said. “It’s also just trying to play up this sort of xenophobic rhetoric around refugees.”
Following Abbott’s announcement, there has been outcry from both sides of the political aisle in Texas, especially from those who have had firsthand experiences interacting with resettled refugees, Norman said.
“You saw pushback from not just NGOs but from religious leaders, from anyone who’s ever had any interaction with resettled refugees who know that they are incredibly active,” she said.
WORKING WITH REFUGEES
Rice community members like Gayake and Kamepalli who have worked with refugees seem to share this opinion.
For Vikram Aggarwal, president of the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees, working with refugees isn’t just another weekly activity, but a window into the experience of people who have been denied access to the life so many people around him were born into and take for granted.
“The refugee population is much more focused on trying to better themselves and really take advantage of the opportunities that are given to them by coming here,” Aggarwal, a Hanszen College junior, said.
Even with the struggles of integrating into a new life so far away from their home country and culture, Aggarwal said the refugees he has worked with say these conditions are better than what they faced before coming to the United States.
“All [the Turkish refugee kids I have worked with] remember was the camp. They don’t remember their house, their actual home country,” he said. “Their education [wasn’t] present because everyone would be so busy trying to survive.”
Although Gayake and Kamepalli are the teachers in the classroom, both said they’ve learned just as much from their students.
“These women are really trying to improve their situation and make the most of what they have,” Gayake said of the community she works with. “Oftentimes they are fleeing from conflict and violence in their home country, and so they want to call Houston and the United States their home.”
After working closely with refugees, Aggarwal, Gayake and Kamepalli all said they believe countries like the United States have a responsibility to provide refugees with a chance at a better life. This is why they were left baffled by Abbott’s announcement.
“Our experiences have shown what important and contributing members of society the refugee women [we worked with] and the [greater] refugee population,” Kamepalli said. “If there were a better understanding of what refugees face and what their experiences are like, I think it would be much harder to justify a ban like this.”
Aggarwal said Abbott’s decision angered him, especially in light of the country’s history.
“This entire country is [made up of] a lot of people who were immigrants and had been refugees escaping persecution,” he said. “We were all taught about the Mayflower Compact.”
Lily Sethre-Brink, an officer for Rice ACLU, decided to channel her frustration with the possibility of Texas turning away refugees into action. In collaboration with Civic Duty Rice, Sethre-Brink and the rest of Rice ACLU organized a phone banking effort to voice student objection to Abbott’s decision by calling his office. The event took place in the Rice Memorial Center on Jan. 24.
“We got them to a point where they would just send us to voicemail as soon as we called because we were flooding the office for the cause,” Sethre-Brink, a Baker College freshman, said.
Although on Jan. 15, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte overturned the new Trump refugee policy, Sethre-Brink said she fears that much like Trump’s 2017 travel ban executive order, the judge’s decision will be overturned by the Trump administration. As a result, Sethre-Brink worked with McMurtry College freshman Angie Fan and Baker College freshman Summer Shabana to introduce a Student Association resolution to indicate support for continued refugee resettlement.
The resolution was introduced on Jan. 27 and will be voted on next week, according to SA President Grace Wickerson. It calls on the SA to stand in support of refugee resettlement, denounce Trump’s executive order and send a letter to Abbott urging him to reverse his decision.
To Sethre-Brink, steps like phone banking and the resolution are important so that activism doesn’t just happen in a vacuum, which she said is often the case on college campuses.
“Raising awareness is good, yes. But that ultimately isn’t going to solve the problem,” Sethre-Brink said. “It’s important to be involved and to understand what’s happening so that you can be prepared for when disastrous events like this happen and be able to take action.”
MORE REFUGEES, LESS RESETTLING
The Trump administration’s most recent policy regarding refugees is in line with other actions it has taken to make refugee resettlement more selective. In 2016, 84,994 refugees were admitted to the United States. That number dropped to 30,000 in 2019. For 2020, Trump set the refugee admission ceiling at 18,000.
Meanwhile, the number of people fleeing conflict is the highest it’s been since World War II, according to the United Nations. And according to Norman, although international rights were outlined for refugees at the 1951 Geneva Convention that followed the war, many countries — including the United States — have found loopholes to avoid their outlined obligations.
“There’s so much discretion given to national governments in the name of security that they can find all sorts of ways of not accepting [refugees],” Norman said. “The U.S. is going to such extreme lengths to prevent people from getting here in the first place.”
Aggarwal said he believes that such a refusal sends people the wrong message about Texas.
“Not allowing refugees, it can really hurt the cultural landscape of Texas and also make us seem very … intolerant towards other people,” he said.
For Sethre-Brink, taking a stand against this policy is not political, but a matter of supporting the Rice community.
“At Rice, we have refugee students, we have students who are undocumented,” she said. “Regardless of whatever political camp you fall into, people are people.”
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