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VOL. 132 | NO. 52 | Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tennessee Sues Federal Government Over Refugee Program

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – The state of Tennessee, spearheaded by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, filed suit against the federal government Monday, March 13, challenging the constitutionality of the Refugee Resettlement Program.

Joining the state in the filing were the General Assembly and two legislators, Sen. John Stevens and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, in claiming the program violates the 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 by Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

Norris, who has advocated for the lawsuit for nearly a year, said it shouldn’t be considered a criticism of the Trump administration.

“We want to convey to the president that we support his efforts concerning immigration and refugee resettlement and believe this suit for declaratory relief is consistent with what would likely be his position regarding states like Tennessee, which have withdrawn from the Refugee Resettlement Program but are forced to continue paying costs associated with it,” said Norris, a Collierville Republican.

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 them 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 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."

The president has issued two executive orders to halt immigration and refugee placement in the U.S., targeting Syria and countries with Muslim majority populations.

“Amidst the largest displacement of people since World War II, the president has already brought the entire refugee resettlement program to a grinding halt, shutting our doors on families fleeing war and violence,” said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the organization. “Not wanting to be outdone by the federal government, our Legislature is proceeding with this extreme lawsuit in hopes of locking the door and throwing away the key.

“Though this lawsuit is bound to fail in the courts, its very filing assures Tennessee’s place in a very dark chapter of our country’s history. But just as the courts will dismiss this lawsuit, Tennesseans will also reject this betrayal of our values and demand real leadership from our elected leaders.”

The American Civil Liberties Union joined in the opposition Monday, pointing out the General Assembly tapped an anti-Islam firm to represent it.

In a statement released Monday, the ACLU Tennessee said the Thomas More Law Center describes its mission, in part, as “defend[ing] and promot[ing] America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values, including the religious freedom of Christians.”

The ACLU also points toward a blog post by law firm president Richard Thompson, which states, “Muslims are not arriving on American shores to assimilate, but to conquer … [The Thomas More Law Center] stands[s] ready to defend our nation from the threat of the Muslim Invasion disguised as Refugee Resettlement.”

Gov. Bill Haslam initially supported a state challenge of the program, but changed his mind last year and said he believes the federal government is doing a good job of vetting refugees before they reach America.

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

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