Tennessee is going “full speed ahead” in a challenge of the federal Refugee Resettlement Program despite threats by President-elect Donald Trump to dismantle it or, at the least, stop the flow of refugees from terrorist-linked countries.
“Until we see a change in the administration’s policy, it’s our mandate under the Senate Joint Resolution 467 to carry out the will of the General Assembly,” says Sen. Mark Norris, sponsor of the measure passed in 2016.
“It’s the General Assembly’s will that we defend our 10th Amendment rights and state sovereignty, so I’m going to march ahead until I’m told otherwise.”
Norris, Senate Republican Caucus leader, says it would be “a godsend” if the refugee program were to be substantially changed or stopped, in which case he would ask the caucus and House how they want to proceed in the case.
Short of that, however, he contends the state’s challenge could help “legitimate refugees” who are being bumped from U.S. entry by the Syrian civil war.
Much of the hoopla arose when President Obama announced the United States would accept 110,000 refugees in 2017 because of the Mideast emergency, a 29 percent increase from the previous year.
But even though a reported 10,000 Syrian refugees resettled in America this year, only 240 came to Tennessee, roughly splitting between the Nashville and Memphis areas. Most refugees come from Iraq and Burma.
And in the wake of the Paris bombing, legislators led by supermajority Republicans in the House and Senate selected the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to represent them free of charge in their challenge of the refugee program.
They had little choice after Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery “respectfully” declined, citing the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government authority over immigration and refugee resettlement.
In a July letter, Slatery said his office understands the Legislature’s concerns. Lawmakers contend federal authorities are failing to consult with Tennessee and local officials in administrating the Refugee Act of 1980 as well as “unconstitutionally” confiscating state resources and coercing states to accept refugees.
Slatery said his office isn’t afraid to challenge the feds and pointed out his office took action on several cases of federal overreach, including “expansive water regulations” that could hurt famers and an effort by the U.S. Department of Education to create a new definition for sex and stop federal funding for Tennessee schools that don’t comply with transgender bathroom regulations.
Yet, the attorney general wasn’t ready to jump into these waters until it saw clear proof the feds weren’t cooperating.
“We, like every other state to this point, decline to initiate a cause of action based upon untested, novel theories of coerced spending or commandeering of the budget process,” Slatery’s letter stated.
The attorney general made several suggestions for working more closely with the feds and said he could join the action if he didn’t see improvement.
Technically, Tennessee dropped the Refugee Resettlement Program under former Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007, and its administration went to Catholic Charities, which farms out the work to nonprofit service agencies. Catholic Charities says the program is successful because of the resilience of refugees.
Norris, though, contends the federal government is “holding a gun to our heads” by threatening to withhold federal funds if the Legislature refuses to put money in the state budget to handle refugees.
Not only should the feds stop shifting costs to Tennessee, Norris adds, they need to “consult and confer” more closely with state officials about who is coming into the state, what their background is and where they’re going.
For example, 10 percent of the Syrian population is Christian but only 1 percent of its refugee population is Christian, Norris points out.
“We need to look into that and understand: Why the variables? We know what they’re doing to Christians, and it’s not pretty,” he says.
But while state Rep. Glen Casada, now the House Republican Caucus leader, called for “bold action” last year such as mobilizing the National Guard to round up Syrian refugees based on ISIS threats and scary comments from the FBI director, others, mainly Democrats, hoped calmer heads would prevail.
Norris argues the “final advantage” to litigation in federal court is the opportunity to find answers to several questions and “force resolution to some issues that without the court’s authority we’re not getting.”
Specifically, some legislators say they want to know exactly how much the state is spending on TennCare and cash assistance for refugees.
The other side
The issue got hot in the aftermath of the Paris bombing when many Americans were scared to death of another 9/11. Republican officials at the state and federal level called for moratoriums on refugee settlement and specifically targeted people fleeing countries such as Iraq and Syria.
At the time, Norris called the proposal for refugee resettlement litigation “a friendly” lawsuit.
More than likely, refugee advocates didn’t send Norris many Facebook friend requests, and they’re still not. They accused lawmakers of trying to “score political points” by aligning themselves with Trump and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who called for putting the refugee program on hold.
With that ringing in its ears, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition says it’s no surprise “dramatic shifts” in the pending federal government policy are “of no concern” to lawmakers backing the legislative challenge.
“This lawsuit was never about how the refugee resettlement program actually works or how it might be changed or improved – it’s only been about exploiting Tennesseans’ fears and worst instincts to score political points,” says Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director for the coalition.
“Tennesseans deserve much more thoughtful leadership. Now that the campaign season is over, we would have hoped legislators would shelve this embarrassing lawsuit and get to the hard work of actual policy making and problem solving.”
Even Gov. Bill Haslam, who allowed the lawsuit resolution to take effect without his signature, changed his outlook in September when he said he had met with U.S. State Department officials and Catholic Charities and decided they were doing a good job of vetting refugees.
Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville called Casada’s proposal “unethical and irresponsible.” Other Democrats such as Rep. Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory said people should be “vigilant” about the potential for terrorism but noted Americans are much more likely to be victimized by gun violence than terrorism.
Jernigan also pointed out refugees go through an 18- to 24-month vetting process compared to much less safer programs such as the Visa Waiver, which allows nationals from 38 countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without getting a visa.
The U.S. House passed legislation to restrict travel by citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Sudan from coming here without screening, but it also limits travel by Americans who’ve been to those countries in the last five years.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a candidate for Trump’s secretary of State, who called for a pause in refugee admission after the Paris bombing because of a “weak database” for tracking people with “terrorism tendencies,” acknowledged the Visa Waiver Program was a much bigger problem than the Refugee Resettlement Program.
Then again, Corker is not exactly a favorite of hardcore conservatives, even though liberals are having trouble figuring out why he would want to serve in a Trump Administration.
While Norris and Casada, obviously, draw criticism from those comfortable with the Refugee Resettlement Program, supermajority Republicans in the General Assembly would be acting in haste if they were to drop the lawsuit before Trump says exactly what he’s going to do.
On the campaign trail, he said a lot of outlandish things clearly designed to win over voters.
On everything from building a wall at the Mexican border to repealing and replacing Obamacare and sending Syrian refugees back home (as if they still have homes in Syria), he won points with people paranoid about immigrants, subsidized health care and terrorism.
Trump-elect, though, doesn’t seem to be quite as bombastic, and some say the “art of the deal” for Trump is to ask for the world and then to settle for a little less.
He swore he would prosecute Hillary Clinton for lying about the use of personal email for classified State Department information but then backed off after he won the electoral vote. He also likes some parts of the Affordable Care Act and says he won’t make Mexico to build a wall after all.
More than likely, he’ll take a softer stance, too, on refugees, though it is said to be one of his top five priorities. Nobody argues that serious vetting is needed for refugees. The key is to avoid hysteria.
An equally important question is whether refugees are being used by big companies for cheap labor. The influx of Somalians into Bedford County where a large number are employed at the Tyson chicken plant spurred legislation requiring Catholic Charities to communicate with local and legislative leaders on the impact of refugee resettlement.
If Tennessee legislators want more information about the budget impact of refugees and how they’re treated when they arrive, so be it. Otherwise, this lawsuit could be used to do nothing but foment fear.
As such, it’s a good thing the Thomas More Center is donating its time.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.