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Refugee resettlement advances in Tennessee

by Kimberlee Kruesi — Tennessee lawmakers once again showed their displeasure with Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to keep accepting refugees by advancing a resolution Tuesday that criticized the Republican’s actions as violating the separation of powers.

The GOP-dominant Statehouse is currently leading a lawsuit claiming the federal refugee resettlement program improperly forces the state to spend money on additional services for the newcomers, including health care and education.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2017. A district court dismissed it a year later, in part deeming it speculative for Tennessee to contend it might lose $7 billion annually in federal Medicaid money if it refuses to spend state money on refugee services through TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

The case has since been rejected by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and it’s unclear whether the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in.

In the interim, however, lawmakers have not only expressed disappointment with Lee’s choice to keep resettling refugees, but also filed several measures this year seeking to overturn his December decision.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican from Lancaster, attempted to downplay the resolution’s focus on refugee resettlement — which is mentioned throughout the text — and instead argued she was sponsoring the resolution to highlight the Legislature’s role in budgeting tax dollars.

“This resolution is not intended nor written to be welcoming, unwelcoming or otherwise anti-immigrant,” Weaver said. “We are talking solely about appropriating funds.”

According to Weaver and other Republican members, the federal government is forcing Tennessee to pay for resettlement costs — arguing that this dynamic violates the 10th Amendment, which says the federal government only has power given to it by the U.S. Constitution and all other powers fall to the states.

The resolution also says the Tennessee Constitution only allows the Legislature to appropriate state funds — arguing that Lee should not continue accepting refugees because doing so has an effect on how the state manages its federal programs.

“(We) object to Governor Bill Lee’s action, the effect of which nullifies and violates the constitutional duty and exclusive institutional authority and power of the General Assembly to expend public money pursuant to appropriations made by law,” the resolution states.

The measure ultimately sailed out of the House State Committee on Tuesday but still needs to clear the full House chamber.

Critics of the resolution counter that while the refugee population does have access to federal programs like Medicaid if they qualify, many do not need them.

“It is important to remember that over 86% of refugees have access to health care through their employers and only a small percentage have access to these programs,” said Judith Clerjeune with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

Most of the opponents’ testimony surrounding the benefits of the refugees community was cut short after lawmakers objected it did not relate to the “separation of powers.”

Tennessee officially stopped participating in the refugee program in 2008.

But Catholic Charities of Tennessee administers a program under a law that says if a state withdraws, the federal government can pick a nonprofit to administer federal money for cash and medical assistance and social services to eligible refugees.

More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Tennessee during the 2016 budget year. That number dropped to 478 in 2018 under President Donald Trump and and has hit 692 in 2019.

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