Tennessee set to sue federal government over refugee resettlement

The Tennessean – by Joel Ebert

The House of Representatives on Monday voted to let Tennessee become the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement on the grounds of the 10th Amendment.

The 10th Amendment states that the federal government possesses powers only delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution and that all other powers are reserved for the states.

The move comes as a result of the chamber’s 69-25 vote on a resolution that directs the state’s attorney general to sue the feds.  

For the most part, the vote fell along party lines, with the exception of a handful of Democrats — Reps. John Mark Windle, Kevin Dunlap and Joe Armstrong — who voted in favor of the legislation. Reps. Bill Dunn and Eddie Smith, both Knoxville Republicans, sided with 23 Democrats in voting against the measure.

Proponents of the legislation argue the federal government has forced the state to participate in refugee resettlement despite the fact that Tennessee has opted not to administer the effort. The state, however, is still partaking in the program through Catholic Charities, which is administering resettlement.

Sponsors of the measure, which was easily approved in the Senate in February, say it is necessary because the federal government has failed to consult with the state on the placement of refugees. Advocates also cite security concerns while saying the feds have shifted the cost of administering the program to Tennessee.

Opponents, including several House Democrats who spoke in opposition to the resolution on Monday, argue it will negatively affect the state’s refugee community and perpetuate a culture of fear.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, asked the bill’s sponsor — Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster — why the resolution was necessary, adding that he believed it was the result of a lot of fear mongering.

“I have serious concerns of what signal we’re going to send to the rest of the country and the rest of the world when there’s a lawsuit that says the state of Tennessee versus the United States and this issue is at the heart of it. That sends the wrong signal and misrepresents the will of my city,” he said.

After fielding several questions from Clemmons, Weaver received applause from her colleagues after saying, “We are a sovereign state representative and it’s time we start acting like it.”

While the resolution made its way through the legislature, proponents, including Weaver, argued for its necessity, citing security concerns.

The federal refugee act was designed to create a permanent procedure for the admission of refugees into the country. Refugee resettlement has become a hot-button issue throughout the United States as the country continues to take in refugees from around the world, including Syrians who have fled their country in the aftermath of an ongoing crisis.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who has said he is not concerned about the safety issue regarding refugee resettlement, has warned that the provision in the resolution that allows lawmakers to hire outside counsel could set a bad precedent.

The provision specifically allows the state to hire the Thomas More Law Center, a private law firm, to provide free legal services in the event that Attorney General Herbert Slatery refuses to file a lawsuit.

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, said that aspect of the resolution is concerning.

“This goes down a very dangerous path, essentially opening up our government to whatever band of activist lawyers happens to roll along and want to conduct so-called free litigation for us,” he said, adding that by ordering the state’s attorney general — an office that falls within the executive branch — to sue the federal government, that in itself is an act of governmental overreach.

Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, criticized lawmakers’ action, saying the litigation puts the state on the wrong side of history.

“Our legislators and the citizens of Tennessee will undoubtedly look back at this moment with great shame,” she said, adding that the resolution makes the state one of the most “unwelcoming and hostile states for refugee families.”

“In the wake of global tragedies, we need legislators to demonstrate real leadership and moral courage,” Teatro said. “Despite serious concerns about the legal and procedural questions around this resolution, the legislature clearly finds it more politically expedient to scapegoat people fleeing persecution than to do the hard work of public policy, which requires being honest with constituents and making real investments in public safety and refugee integration.”

Haslam is unable to veto the legislation because it comes in the form of a resolution.

With the House’s action, Tennessee is expected to become the third state to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement.

Reach Joel Ebert at 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.


3 thoughts on “Tennessee set to sue federal government over refugee resettlement

  1. This is what I call a “public display” case…. Tennessee will lose, and the precedent will be set for everyone having to deal with whatever horde of scum Obama drops in their state.

    “In the wake of global tragedies, we need legislators to demonstrate real leadership and moral courage,”

    And of course, “real leadership and moral courage” means giving your country away to a slave labor force.

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