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Texas Governor Announces Decision To Leave Refugee Resettlement Program

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced today that his state is leaving the federal refugee resettlement program. He said in a statement that safety concerns drove the decision. Governor Abbott is also urging the federal government to overhaul the refugee screening system. But as Ashley Lopez from member station KUT in Austin reports, this doesn't mean refugees will stop going to Texas.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Last year, Texas resettled roughly 7,000 people, more than any other state in the country. Simone Talma Flowers runs an interfaith program that provides English classes to refugees. She says Texas is actually really good at helping refugees get on their feet.

SIMONE TALMA FLOWERS: The state of Texas - they have been doing refugee resettlement program - managing it for 40 years. They have it where they have learned how to run this system, and it's going beautifully.

LOPEZ: Flowers says she's disappointed the state will no longer play this role. She says state agencies have helped a lot of people. That includes Qahtan Mustafa. After working as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq, Mustafa says he was eventually resettled in Austin in 2009.

QAHTAN MUSTAFA: It's a very overwhelming process once you arrive here. It's just like you are in a tunnel with no light, like you don't know like anything about this country.

LOPEZ: State government services, non-profit agencies and faith-based programs all work together to help newly arrived refugees. Mustafa says that network helped him find an apartment, a job, health care and school for his children.

MUSTAFA: I was surprised by how much the Austin community welcomed me here and welcomed my family. Wherever we go, there are always someone to help.

LOPEZ: But after the Paris terrorist attacks last year, state officials have said the federal screening process refugees isn't strict enough. The federal government disagrees and points to the lengthy background checks it conducts before refugees can come to the U.S. It can take several years. Texas officials also don't want to accept more refugees next year, even as President Obama wants to increase the number of refugees resettled here. Now the state wants out of the program altogether.

AARON RIPPENKROEGER: It feels like it is a shame that at a time when it's so needed and at a - in a place where we're so good at it, we have some forces moving in different directions.

LOPEZ: That's Aaron Rippenkroeger the president and CEO of refugee services of Texas. Texas can't actually stop refugees from coming here. He says the federal government will likely ask a nonprofit to take the program over. About a dozen other states have similar programs. But Rippenkroeger says that shift will be an undertaking.

RIPPENKROEGER: We can't lose sleep over that. We've got to keep moving, but it will be a lot of work. And, unfortunately, we had a lot to do it already anyway.

LOPEZ: Rippenkroeger says first and foremost, it will make sure there aren't interruptions in services. Groups will have 120 days to work this all out with the feds. But the biggest concern from refugee advocates here is that this move sends a message to refugees that they aren't welcome in Texas anymore. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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