Why This Texas City Is Saying Yes to Refugees While the Governor Says No

Why This Texas City Is Saying Yes to Refugees While the Governor Says No

Originally published by The NY Times

“I feel like I’m a Texan,” said Patrick Maboko, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I have a vision of life so I can see now I am fitting in here.”

AMARILLO, Texas — Patrick Maboko came to the Texas Panhandle from the Democratic Republic of Congo 10 years ago as a refugee. He still speaks Swahili, but often makes his way around town these days in boots and a cowboy hat.

During the day, he operates a saw at the Tyson meat-processing plant in Amarillo. On weekends, he takes his family downtown to cheer the minor league Amarillo Sod Poodles. Mr. Maboko, 45, never thought he would feel at home in a place like the Panhandle, where cattle outnumber people by a significant margin in some counties.

But Amarillo, a city whose residents at first raised questions about welcoming so many foreigners, has seen thousands of refugees like Mr. Maboko arrive over the years, from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere. Sixty languages are spoken in Amarillo’s schools.

“I feel like I’m a Texan,” Mr. Maboko said. “I have a vision of life so I can see now I am fitting in here.”

This month, Gov. Greg Abbott became the first governor in the country to announce that Texas no longer wanted to resettle new refugees, saying that a state that also was the epicenter of recent mass migration from Central America had done more than its share.

Mr. Abbott faced immediate criticism from big-city mayors across Texas, the state’s two biggest newspapers and all 16 of its Catholic bishops — but not from the statewide Republican leadership that has been a reliable ally in President Trump’s attempts to curb immigration.

Long before Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Abbott and other Republican leaders in Texas built their political careers on talking tough about immigration. They sent National Guard troops to the border, adopted a law banning sanctuary cities and led a lawsuit to end the federal program that protects many young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

In his announcement, Mr. Abbott, whose wife is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, was taking the state’s anti-refugee policies to the next level. In 2016, Texas withdrew from the federal refugee resettlement program in a dispute with the Obama administration over the state’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees. But that earlier withdrawal was largely a symbolic move; the latest announcement took advantage of an executive order, issued by Mr. Trump last year, that gives states and local governments the power to opt out of accepting refugees.

For now, Mr. Abbott’s decree is without force — a federal judge last week issued a preliminary injunction blocking Mr. Trump’s executive order, but the administration is expected to appeal the ruling.

Here in Amarillo, which for a time took in more refugees per capita than any other Texas city, few share the governor’s alarm over refugees, and those who do have a far more nuanced view. They have long lived with refugees, not as abstract political talking points, but as neighbors.

Many conservatives in Amarillo express support for Mr. Abbott’s stance on refugees but have no harsh words for the people who have joined their city, some of whom they have invited into their homes and tried to help with donations of time and money.

Two nonprofit groups — Refugee Services of Texas and Catholic Charities of the Texas Panhandle — resettled and assisted nearly 7,000 refugees in Amarillo and nearby cities from 2007 through 2017. Refugee admissions have dropped sharply since Mr. Trump took office; only about 200 have come in since then.

Amarillo — a flat, wind-battered and majority-white city of 200,000 — has become the Queens of the Texas High Plains.

In many ways, the city is the same place it has been for decades. Cowboy culture and Texas kitsch dominate. It is home to the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum. Tourists still take up the gut-busting challenge at the Big Texan Steak Ranch: Its 72-ounce steak dinner is free if you can eat it all in one hour.

In 2016, both Randall and Potter Counties voted for Mr. Trump.

But thousands of refugees now work in the meat-processing and food-processing plants across the Panhandle. They earn wages starting at $15 an hour, pay taxes, buy cars, start small businesses and enroll their children in the public schools. A 2017 report by New American Economy, an immigration advocacy group, estimated the spending power of refugees in Texas at $4.6 billion.

Inevitably, culture clashes between longtime white and Hispanic residents and refugees from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are an almost daily occurrence. City Hall staff members have fielded angry phone calls from residents claiming that refugees were barbecuing dogs in their front yards. Newcomers unfamiliar with local laws have hunted ranchers’ cattle for food.

But the city’s rapid-fire globalization has worked more often than it has broken down. The mayor of Amarillo, Ginger Nelson, said she could imagine a time when the first refugee is elected to the City Council.

“Yes, they’ve changed us, but it’s good to expand your horizons and to embrace different ways of thinking,” Ms. Nelson said. “The more ideas you have at the table, the stronger you are as a community.”

Early on, the Amarillo Tea Party Patriots invited Jeff Gulde, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Texas Panhandle, to meet with them. The members peppered him with questions — someone asked what the refugees’ religions were — but that, ultimately, was all. The local Tea Party made no push to stop the influx.

One Tea Party member, Tim Revell, a retired doctor, said he had met with refugees at his home and provided some with free medical assistance. “You can only take politics and things so far,” said Mr. Revell, 74, who is the chairman of the Randall County Republican Party. “When you’re looking at people suffering, it’s another deal.”

Ray Herrera, 67, a Vietnam veteran, befriended the Congolese family who moved in across from him at the Palo Duro Place Apartments, inviting them to his church. “These people are not doing wrong,” he said. “Who am I, and who is the governor and who is the president, to say we’re going to stop this?”

But steps from Mr. Herrera’s door, a neighbor, Sonia Rios, 45, said she planned on moving out in a few months. The refugees’ unsupervised children and teenagers, she said, have caused too many problems. Some of the young refugees broke into her car, she said, and on another occasion threw an object at her wife’s vehicle, blowing out one of the windows.

“We’re done,” Ms. Rios said. “If they’re getting treated bad in their country, well, by God, come over, but don’t come over here thinking you can do whatever you want. Don’t come over thinking this is your trash can.”

Daniel L. Rogers, 57, the chairman of the Republican Party in Potter County, which also takes in part of Amarillo, makes it clear that his willingness to accept new refugees depends on their willingness to meet him halfway.

A real estate broker, Mr. Rogers wears a black cowboy hat and a knife on his belt. His office is decorated with red Trump MAGA hats and filled with the bittersweet scent of pipe smoke. Amarillo, he said, is ready to welcome any refugees who are willing to become citizens and stay out of trouble.

“Bring us 10 million of those a year, if they want to be productive members and make America great, and be American, not a hyphenated American,” he said. “Nobody cares what color somebody is or where they came from. Nobody cares.”

Mr. Maboko, the Congolese refugee, has embraced his Texas identity, but said he was shocked and saddened that Mr. Abbott wanted to refuse more refugees. He has relatives urgently waiting for resettlement in the United States, he said, and pulled out his phone.

He wanted the governor to see the pictures he received about a month ago from relatives in his village. The pictures included gruesome images of murdered and sexually mutilated young Congolese women.

Were people facing such dangers not entitled to a Texas welcome?

“I wish you can take me to the governor and I can show him,” he said. “People are dying.”

Read more:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/us/refugees-states-texas-abbott.html?searchResultPosition=1


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