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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — As a group of Syrian refugees prepares to arrive in Texas, government officials are locked in an intensifying legal battle over whether the families can be blocked from resettling in the state.

The U.S. government and relief groups on Friday asked a federal judge in Texas to reject the state’s efforts to block Syrian refugees.

State attorneys responded by withdrawing their request for a temporary restraining order that would have barred Syrian refugees from arriving next week, but are still seeking an injunction to stop them after that.

Texas is among 30 states whose political leaders have vowed to take a hard line against incoming refugees from Syria, and the first to take the issue to court. The outcome could shape the federal government’s plan to resettle refugees throughout the nation.

Though the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based nonprofit organization, has refused to stop resettling Syrian refugees in Texas, other refugee groups have stopped or remained silent.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national resettlement organization, in consultation with Refugee Services of Texas, decided that resettling a family of six Syrian refugees in Texas would not be in their best interests due to state officials’ opposition.

Attorneys for the Justice Department and the International Rescue Committee each filed responses with the federal judge in Dallas early Friday after Texas officials sued Wednesday, seeking an injunction to stop the resettlement of half a dozen Syrians in the Dallas area.

There are now more than 21 refugees that the federal government plans to resettle in Dallas or Houston, likely early next week.

Attorneys for the state had argued in their lawsuit that the federal government and the refugee groups left Texas officials “uninformed about refugees that could well pose a security risk to Texans.”

“Members of the federal executive branch have expressed concern regarding this massive expansion of refugees from an area engulfed in fighting with (the Islamic State terror group),” the lawsuit says, while noting that “Texas has the sovereign authority and duty to protect the safety of its residents.”

Justice Department attorneys countered in their filing Friday that Texas officials are trying to exercise “unwarranted veto power over individual federal refugee resettlement decisions” without “showing that these refugees pose any threat, much less an imminent one, to the safety or security of Texas residents or any other Americans.”

“The harm to the national interest as determined by the president, and to the interests of the individual refugee families in question, outweigh (the state’s) speculative and uninformed fears about security,” the filing says.

ACLU attorneys who filed separately on behalf of the refugee group called the Texas lawsuit “utterly meritless.”

On Friday afternoon, Texas attorneys withdrew their request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Syrian refugees from moving into the state until next Wednesday.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that action was taken after federal officials “provided additional requested information regarding the first group of refugees set to arrive in Texas.”

The state is still seeking an injunction barring resettlement of further Syrian refugees until the court determines that federal officials and the refugee group, “are complying with their statutory and contractual duties to consult with Texas in advance of placing refugees.”

Attorneys for the state have asked the judge for a hearing by next Wednesday.

“Texas shouldn’t have to go to court to require Washington to comply with federal law regarding its duties to consult with Texas in advance,” Paxton said Friday.

The lead attorney for the refugee group said his organization was pleased the state withdrew its request.

“We are glad these new Texans can make their way home and look forward to prevailing in this case,” said Cecilia Wang, a San Francisco-based ACLU attorney.

A spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee said the Syrian family of six had arrived in New York on Friday.

“They’re very happy to be here, very grateful to be here,” spokeswoman Lucy Carrigan said, calling them, “a wonderful, brave, resilient family who have been through extraordinarily difficult experiences.”

She said the family is aware of the lawsuit, but still glad to be in the U.S.

“They came here seeking safety and they feel like they’re now at peace in the United States,” Carrigan said.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Syrian refugees walk at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, November 1, 2015. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed