VOL. 132 | NO. 12 | Tuesday, January 17, 2017
State Targets Refugee Program; Lollar to Lead Delegation
By Sam Stockard
The state Legislature is likely to file a complaint before the end of January challenging the legality of the Refugee Resettlement Program in Tennessee, according to Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.
Lawmakers met with their attorneys this week and “made progress on the pleadings,” Norris said, in preparation for the legal battle over administration of the program after Tennessee withdrew from it in 2007.
Tennessee is seeking a court’s declaratory judgment that the federal government is no longer complying with the Refugee Act of 1980, straying from it on several fronts: shifting the cost of administering the program to the state, failing to consult with Tennessee on refugee placement and violating the 10th Amendment dealing with separation of powers to states.
Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center volunteered to take the Legislature’s case in 2016 after Attorney General Herb Slatery declined to get involved, citing the U.S. Constitution, which he said gives the federal government authority over immigration and refugee resettlement.
A group of Muslims was expected to hold a prayer vigil at the Legislative Plaza Friday, possibly in protest of the legal challenge and to show opposition to other recent legislative moves.
Norris, though, said the refugee resettlement case has “no relation” with the planned visit.
“Folks who really care about refugee resettlement want the law applied as it was originally written,” said Norris. “There are legitimate refugees who are being denied refugee status because of some administrative shenanigans by Uncle Sam where they’ve designated people who have no business being considered refugees as refugees.”
The Collierville Republican believes the Legislature could see “favorable rulings” in the case once it is filed when President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in to replace President Barack Obama.
Norris said he met with the legal counsel for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin this week and was told the commonwealth could be joining Tennessee in its lawsuit or filing a separate challenge.
Though Norris has said the pending challenge is a “friendly” lawsuit, groups such as the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition have accused lawmakers of trying to “score political points” by aligning themselves with Trump, who has talked about putting a hold on refugee immigration from Syria and other countries with terrorist connections. TIRRC has said the lawsuit is not designed to improve the refugee resettlement program but to exploit Tennesseans’ “fears and worst instincts.”
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.
Catholic Charities started administering the program in Tennessee after the state dropped the program under Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration.
The matter became a hot political item in the wake of the Paris bombing when one of the suspects was said to have a Syrian ID, fueling speculation terrorists could embed themselves in the flow of refugees from war-torn Syria.
More concern arose when President Obama announced the United States would accept 110,000 refugees in 2017, a 29 percent increase over the previous year. Even though a reported 10,000 Syrian refugees resettled in America in 2016, only 240 came to Tennessee, roughly splitting between the Nashville and Memphis areas.
“At each turn, this lawsuit seems more and more like a quixotic mission,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of TIRRC. “First, the proponents ignored the well-reasoned advice of our governor and attorney general who refused to sue the federal government, then they hired one of the most fringe and extremist law firms in the country to represent the General Assembly.
“Now, the state will move forward and sue the Trump administration over a program they haven’t even started overseeing. If this were an honest attempt to improve the program or consultation process, a lawsuit should be the last step, not the first one under the new administration,” Teatro said. “This deeply shameful and misguided lawsuit should be suspended immediately.”
SHELBY DELEGATION LEADERSHIP
The Shelby County legislative delegation elected Rep. Ron Lollar as its chairman this week, putting him in the leadership post for the next two years.
Lollar, a Bartlett Republican with 10 years on Capitol Hill, said he appreciates being selected and looks forward to “big brother and little brothers” working together to benefit the entire county.
“We’re all trying to help the folks that live in Shelby County and ensure the enterprises and the economy will do well,” said Lollar, alluding to Memphis and the surrounding municipalities.
Lollar also was reappointed Thursday to chair the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee.
The Shelby delegation elected Sen. Sarah Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, as vice chairman and Rep. Barbara Cooper, a Memphis Democrat, as secretary.
Said Kyle, who was re-elected to her first full four-year term in 2016, “The Shelby County delegation brings us all together – Democrats and Republicans – to do what’s best for Shelby County. As we begin the new legislative session, I am honored to serve in this role and do my part to make sure Shelby County has a voice in the business of our state.”
State Sen. Brian Kelsey was appointed to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee again.
Kelsey, an attorney from Germantown, posted on Facebook, “I am blessed and honored to be asked by Lt. Gov. McNally to serve as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
One of his key legislative efforts this session is to hold a convention of states to adopt a U.S. constitutional amendment to balance the budget.
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.