By Jill Penley
This week, Gov. Bill Lee announced his consent to initial refugee resettlement in Tennessee in response to an executive order issued by President Donald J. Trump on September 26, 2019, in which the secretary of state and secretary of Health and Human Services were given 90 days to develop a process to determine which state and local governments have given written consent to accept refugees.
“The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution,” said Governor Bill Lee. “My administration has worked extensively to determine the best outcome for Tennessee, and I will consent to work with President Trump and his administration to responsibly resettle refugees.”
Top Republicans, including the Tennessee speakers of the House and Senate, quickly announced their disapproval with the governor’s decision.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, released a joint statement soon after the governor’s announcement, making reference to a lawsuit filed by the state of Tennessee in March 2017, asserting the federal government is forcing states to pay for costs related to refugee resettlement while violating the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Our opinion has not changed on this issue since legal action was taken,” the speakers said, citing the legislature’s previous support of Tennessee bringing the lawsuit.
“Our personal preference would have been to exercise the option to hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state. However, the federal order makes this the sole decision of the Governor, and he has made his call.”
State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said in response, he would have preferred the governor halt refugee resettlement in Tennessee, but he looks forward to continuing working with Gov Lee. “It will in no way impact my working relationship with the governor at all,” he said.
The President has also ordered the number of refugees accepted nationwide to be reduced to 18,000.
According to the Tennessee Office for Refugees (TOR), as of the end of October, 692 refugees “resettled” in Tennessee in 2019, which is up from the 478 reported for the entire year of 2018.
TOR administers refugee cash and medical assistance programs, and subcontracts with funded partners to coordinate initial medical screenings, provide employment and case management services, English language training, preventive health services, and support refugee integration into local school systems.