Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is escalating his effort to stop Syrian refugees from being resettled in the state. Just before Thanksgiving, his health secretary threatened to sue resettlement agencies that refuse to comply with his order.
Health and Human Services Executive Commissioner Chris Traylor told the agencies that Texas has taken its fair share of refugees over the years, and wrote that the commission reserves the “right to refuse to cooperate with any resettlement on any grounds and, until further notice, will refuse to cooperate with the resettlement of any Syrian refugees in Texas.”
Abbott told Fox News in the days following the Paris attacks that the federal government’s screening process can’t keep ISIS or other terrorists from using resettlement as a backdoor into America.
“Because of the inability to establish good tracking information about the background of the Syrian refugees, I would say it is impossible for them to meet our standard, our criteria to accept any further refugees,” he said.
Anne Marie Weiss Armush, president of Dallas Fort Worth International Community Alliance, says Syrians are already put through a more extensive screening process than other refugees. Priority is given to the most vulnerable – the elderly, the disabled, families with small children.
“There is no basis for anyone to claim that refugees will be recruited by ISIS,” Weiss Armush says. “It worries me that the American public believes a story that’s so exaggerated, so untrue that’s been passed around by some of our governors.”
Weiss Armush says that in her decades of experience working with refugees, it has never been easy to vet and verify the backgrounds of refugees fleeing war zones. Nonetheless, just three of the 784,000 refugees from around the world resettled in the U.S. have been involved in terror plots. None were successful, and two were planning attacks overseas. The difference this time, she says, is that the U.S. is expecting a higher standard of screening for Syrians. That, she says, has already created a massive backlog of applicants for refugee status.
The arrival of Syrian refugees in the U.S. is less a flood than a trickle. Some 4.2 million Syrians have been displaced by the civil war; the U.S. has taken in a bit more than 2,200 of them.
Just 24 families have been resettled in North Texas. Abdulrahman Zetoun’s family is one of them.
Zetoun lives with his mother in a two-bedroom apartment in Fort Worth, a few doors down from his brother and nephew, who has severe disabilities. The latest addition to their household is US native, a kitten named Olive. She’s adorable, but he says she was absolutely useless when a mouse ran across their kitchen floor.
“I felt like she was saying there’s a mouse, go and kill it,” he says. “I looked at her like, that’s your job, what are you doing here? Act like your nature!”
The kitten played around the living room as we sat sipping strong Syrian coffee. When I asked Zetoun what it was like going through the screening process in Turkey, he says it’s a lot of waiting.
“A lot of time, a lot of interviews, a lot of health checks,” he says. “They do blood tests, they do everything they should do.”
He says there are also hundreds of questions about political and religious affiliations, about who you know and associate with, asked over and over for months. He says he can't think of what extra layers of scrutiny politicians like Donald Trump are actually talking about when they call for a more thorough vetting process.
"What more does he want?" he asks."There’s a thousand steps we already do before we get here."
He counts himself lucky, though -- everyone does, he says – because his family got through it quicker than most: 14 months after starting, he and his family were on a plane to Texas.
The 20-year-old says he’s sad so many Americans fear Syrian refugees. But he gets it: it’s hard to understand what’s happening a world away. He thinks politicians are being disingenuous, though – they should know the screening process is so tough that almost no refugees resettled since Sept. 11 have been involved in terror plots.
His mother, Mazek Al-Hafiz, makes the case for her people in Arabic. The retired school teacher says Syrians are honest and honorable people who value community and take care of each other. They just need help and want to be treated fairly.
Her son says they don’t worry about their own safety after the Paris attacks and this wave of anti-refugee sentiment.
“I’m not scared because there’s also a lot of people when they know I’m from Syria, they hold my hand very tight, they pray for me, they pray for Syria,” he says. “That’s why I’m not worried.”
Abdulrahman Zetoun’s life is here now, and he’s fine with that – thankful, even.
“A lot of people they stole our freedom in Syria, and now we got it back,” he says. “This is my home right now, and this is the land that I’m going to defend for the rest of my life. And I’m going to have kids, and this is the land that they’re going to defend. Not Syria. America.”
That won’t change, he says, no matter what Greg Abbott and his fellow governors try to do.