After Paris Attacks, Texas Closes Its Borders to Syrian Refugees

In light of the recent attacks in Paris, Gov. Greg Abbott has decided Texas will no longer accept Syrian refugees.

By David Brown, Emily Donahue and Hady MawajdehNovember 16, 2015 1:59 pm, ,

Shortly after the independent Texas flag was raised, France became the first nation to recognize the new republic.

The French Legation, a lavish place by the standards of the day, was built in the Texas capitol city with the idea, at least initially, to bring French settlers to Texas.

Even then, the French had a reputation for celebrating liberty and those who sought it. It made a certain sense to form an alliance with the new Republic of Texas.

The diplomatic residence still stands today, as one of the oldest buildings in Austin. Perhaps less well-known is that at 1 Place Vendome – today the Hotel de Vendome in Paris – there’s a plaque marking where the embassy of the Republic of Texas in France once stood. The building is about 15 minutes from some of the terrorist attacks that took place this past Friday.

Political boundaries and definitions come and go, but the spirit of the people remains astonishingly resilient and faithful through the years and miles. So it was that in Paris, on a Friday night, people sang and danced at a concert hall, cheered at a football stadium, and sipped wine and enjoyed each other’s company long past nightfall around sidewalk tables among the soft glow of candles and streetlights. It’s a happiness we know: free of worry, free of fear. Friday, that freedom was disrupted.

At least six sites were targeted by what investigators are saying were three well-organized teams of assailants armed with automatic weapons and explosive devices. A reported 129 people died. Investigators discovered a Syrian passport near one of the attack areas.

The Islamic State, or ISIS, has released a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks. France’s President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency and closed France’s national borders.

NPR’s David Greene reported this morning that, in the shadow of the attacks, Parisians are going through their daily motions, but now some of those routines are full of fear. Others see it as an act of resistance to grab a drink at the cafés they frequent. They say it takes bravery to go on with their daily life.

Even as Paris grieves, there is no horror so great, no animus so medieval, that it can break that love of freedom which binds us. That freedom is a structure which – like that of the old French Legation’s – still stands. We celebrate it, nevermore so than we do today.

Over the past several months, Texas has become home to hundreds of Syrian refugees. These people fled their homes because of terrible war conditions that made life dangerous, unstable and completely unpredictable – a far cry from the ideals of freedom that both Texas and France uphold today.

After Friday’s attacks, and a report that at least one of the Paris attackers slipped through Europe’s refugee screening system from Syria, many are beginning to wonder if Western countries will continue to be as welcoming.

In September, the Obama administration had announced plans to take in 10,000 refugees over the next year. Texas was predicted to take in the highest percentage of those coming into the U.S., as it had been doing so in years prior.

But Monday, the governors of several states announced that those states will no longer resettle any refugees from Syria. Gov. Greg Abbott has also sent a letter to President Barack Obama saying he is closing Texas borders to Syrian refugees as well.

In it, Abbott says our “American Humanitarian compassion” could be exploited to expose Americans to similar deadly dangers to that of the Paris attacks. He notes that the federal government does not have the background check information that is necessary to conduct proper security checks on Syrian nationals. He also says that the threat posed to Texas by ISIS is very real.

ISIS claimed credit last May when two terrorist gunman launched an attack in Garland. Less than two weeks later, the Abbott says the FBI arrested an Iraqi-born man in North Texas and charged him with lying to federal agents about traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS. In 2014, when Abbott was the Attorney General, the office participated in a joint terrorism task force that arrested two Austin residents for providing material support to terrorists, including ISIS.

“And I urge you, as president, to halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States,” Abbott says, at the end of his letter. “Opening our door to them irresponsibly exposes our fellow Americans to unacceptable peril.”

Idean Salehyan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas and associate at the Straus Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin, says these are legitimate security concerns. However, he says, closing state borders to Syrian refugees is myopic.

“We have concerns with anybody who might be here currently that could be radicalized, including American citizens or people who have been here for a long time that are subsequently radicalized,” Salehyan says. “When we’re talking about millions of refugees fleeing that region … the vast majority of those people who have come and settled in the U.S. do so for a better life.

“They are working, going to school, being productive members of society,” Salehyan continues. “To the extent that there might be a few extremists or people that could be radicalized, yes we need to be vigilant about that. But, to blanketly close the doors and say none of these people can come in, and let our fear overwhelm our humanitarian obligations, is a little bit shortsighted.”

The Syrian refugee crisis is, by all accounts, the worst refugee crisis since World War II, Salehyan says. Millions of Syrians have been displaced both within their country and outside of their country. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are having massive problems handling the sheer number of people. Salehyan says it makes sense that President Obama isn’t backing down on his plan to continue the intake of Syrian refugees into the United States.

“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama says.

Salehyan agrees. He says the refugee screening process, which has been in effect in the United States since the 1980s, screens refugees from overseas. They’re screened by the state department and intelligence agencies, he says, and then they’re allowed to come into the U.S. where they’ve been placed with a voluntary organization that sponsors them while they’re here. On top of that, there’s no guarantee that refugees who go through the screening process will ever make it to the United States.

“That process takes upwards of a year. So it’s very unlikely, in my view, that terrorists, that ISIS will try to use this as a primary means to try to enter the United States,” he says. “Despite the horrors of what happened in Paris, we can’t let fear take over and close our doors to millions of people that are really suffering and struggling.”