In September 2019, President Trump signed an executive order that requires states and localities to give written consent before the federal government will resettle refugees in their jurisdiction. Until a court blocked the new rule, 19 Republican governors consented to resettlement, and just one — Greg Abbott of Texas — did not. 

These governors wrote formal letters to the president and to the secretary of state describing their general support for refugees and asking that refugees be resettled in their states. 

What appeared to be an attempt by the White House to further politicize refugee issues and invite states to pull out of the resettlement program had the opposite effect: bolstering support for refugees, showcasing widespread, bipartisan backing for resettlement, and galvanizing new communities, business, and faith groups to come out in favor of refugees. 

In reviewing the consent letters from the 19 governors, three main themes emerged. 

First, that refugee resettlement aligns with American values, namely that it’s an act of compassion. Governors wrote that welcoming refugees supports U.S. traditions of taking in those fleeing religious and political persecution. Second, that refugees are hardworking and productive citizens who contribute to the economy and society. And third, that resettled refugees have been vetted by multiple federal security agencies and are qualified and nonthreatening.  

Many governors in their letters described the U.S. as a country accepting of those fleeing religious and political persecution. Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona wrote that “the U.S. has been a refuge” for individuals in these situations throughout its history. 

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee wrote that Tennessee and the U.S. have been “a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed” since the inception of the nation. Resettling refugees fits into this national narrative. 

Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah described refugee resettlement as “an act of compassion” toward individuals fleeing persecution in other countries. He explained that his state deeply empathizes “with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes.” 

Nevertheless, GOP governors did not simply speak of accepting refugees as an act of kindness. 

They spoke of their states’ need for refugees. The governors described refugees as hardworking, productive citizens who were self-sufficient and fully engaged in the state’s economy. These individuals will become well-integrated members of the local communities in which they are resettled. 

In his letter, Herbert explicitly asked the president to allow more refugees to be resettled in Utah. He wrote that each year Utah resettles over 1,000 refugees and that the number has decreased in recent years. Yet, Herbert acknowledged that Utah has the “capacity and public will” to see the number of refugees increase, for the state is far from reaching its limits. 

Vermont’s governor, Phil Scott, elaborated on the economic contributions of refugees in his state, “Vermont has more open jobs than people to fill them” so “refugee communities are vital to Vermont’s economic health.” He affirmed that refugees take jobs in “critical economic sectors” and further support the local economy by paying taxes. 

A spokeswoman for Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said he values the role of immigrants in making Massachusetts  “a vibrant and unique place to live and work.” 

Contributions by refugees reach far beyond the economy, however, and GOP governors explicitly acknowledge those contributions. Herbert of Utah wrote that refugees “become contributors in our schools, churches and other civic institutions.”  

As Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri put it, refugees “have become vital members of our communities.” 

The GOP governors also worked to dispel myths about refugees. Many governors asserted that individuals accepted into the refugee resettlement program have been vetted and approved by government agencies, implying that these individuals post no risk to public safety.

As Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb explained, refugees are “individuals who have gone through the proper channels” and were granted legal refugee status by the federal government. 

Governors also stated that because these individuals have gone through a government screening process they are deserving of and qualified for the resettlement program. 

All in all, GOP governors view refugees as individuals joining the American family, like Missouri’s Parson, who said “these immigrants become patriotic and productive fellow Americans.” 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas sums up the role of refugees in the United States, saying, “Immigrants bring energy, a thirst for freedom, and a desire to pursue the American Dream.” He calls this system of welcoming immigrants as “America’s strength” and essential to our future as a nation. 

In contrast to 19 other GOP governors, Gov. Abbott of Texas rejected refugee resettlement for 2020, saying Texas has reached its limits. His letter affirms the welcoming attitude of Texas toward refugees, but explains that the recent border situation has overburdened the state, writing that Texas has “to deal with disproportionate migration issues resulting from a broken federal immigration system.” 

He ends his letter by saying Texas has “carried more than its share” in resettling refugees in the United States in the past decade and appreciates that other states will “help with these efforts.” 

In January 2020, a week after Abbott refused refugees, a federal district court judge in Maryland, Peter J. Messitte, issued an injunction blocking President Trump’s September executive order while the issue is litigated. As a result of the injunction, the federal government will not need the explicit consent of states and localities where it intends to resettle refugees.

So while the executive order may be in limbo legally, it has already had its political effect — and it was hardly what the White House intended. When given the opportunity to reject refugees, GOP governors overwhelmingly showed they want to do the opposite.

Photo Credit: The U.S. National Parks Service