Harris: Syrian Air Strikes Should Change State’s Stance on Refugees

By Sam Stockard

State Sen. Lee Harris is calling on the Legislature to rethink its stance on refugees amid legal action taken against the federal government after President Donald Trump ordered an air strike against Syria.


“Our state has become an outlier in the nation for its extreme opposition to refugee resettlement,” says Harris, a Memphis Democrat. “Now that the president is escalating the conflict in Syria, it’s time for us to reconsider. Any time our men and women in uniform engage in conflict abroad, we have a duty to do everything we can to ensure their safety. Providing a safe haven for the people who are fleeing for their lives – and who would join us in opposition to the regime – would strengthen our country’s position in this conflict.”

Trump authorized the air strikes against Syria last Friday in response to the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad on Syrian people, which killed 85 people and hurt hundreds more, according to reports.

“In years past, leaders in the General Assembly have blamed refugees for a heightened risk of terrorism and disease, but perhaps under a new administration, members of both parties can re-evaluate the refugee program.”

Spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, the state of Tennessee filed suit against the federal government earlier this year, challenging the constitutionality of the Refugee Resettlement Program.

Norris said the lawsuit and the air strikes have no connection.

“What we’re trying to do is clear the air over the Refugee Resettlement Act so that those who are rightful refugees can be here,” he said. “It (air strikes) certainly doesn’t change anything we’re doing. We’re trying to understand what our rights and responsibilities are since (Gov.) Phil Bredesen pulled us out of the program in 2007.”

Joining the state in the filing were the General Assembly and two legislators, Sen. John Stevens and Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver, in claiming the program violates the 10th Amendment and separation of powers between the federal and state government. The plaintiffs contend Tennessee withdrew from the program in 2007 but is still spending millions of dollars annually to fund the federal program, which is run here by Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

In the wake of the Paris bombing more than a year ago, the Republican-led Legislature selected the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, Mich., to represent it free of charge in their challenge of the refugee program.

Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery “respectfully” declined to take charge of the legal action, citing the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government authority over immigration and refugee resettlement. Slatery wrote that he understands the Legislature’s concerns, but he declined to initiate legal action “based upon untested, novel theories of coerced spending and commandeering of the budget process.”

Stevens, a Huntington Republican, and Weaver, a Lancaster Republican, contend the federal government has strong-armed the state into paying for refugee resettlement, thus chipping away at Tennessee’s sovereignty.

Norris said the program also has strayed from the original guidelines on refugee qualifications, and he believes “real refugees are being pushed to the back of some imaginary line and other immigrants are supplanting them to their disadvantage.”

The plaintiffs say the federal government promised full reimbursement of state costs and benefits when the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980 passed. But since then states have become responsible for all costs, even after Tennessee quit administering the program a decade ago.

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition has consistently accused lawmakers of trying to “score political points” by aligning themselves with Trump and exploiting Tennesseans’ “fears and worst instincts.”

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.