Tennessee legislators push plan to sue feds over refugee resettlement

Theresa Laurence

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Tennessee Catholic leaders continue to oppose a bill moving through the state Legislature that seeks to halt refugee resettlement by suing the federal government.

"In essence, this directs the attorney general to sue the federal government for expenses the state makes in providing services to refugees," said Jennifer Murphy, executive director of the Tennessee Catholic Public Policy Commission, which is the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Tennessee.

"This country was built on refugees and immigrants and our church, from the beginning, has been a source of help and welcome to the stranger," Murphy said.

The resolution, which easily passed a full Senate vote Feb. 22, is now pending in the House of Representatives.

Gov. Bill Haslam expressed his concerns about the bill after it passed in the Senate. "The people who are coming into our country doing us harm, that's not the process that they're coming in under," he said in a public statement. Those who enter the United States through the refugee program are highly vetted and sometimes wait years to be cleared to enter the country.

While this round of legislation was more of a fight against the federal government than with actual refugees, "it feels like the goal is to stop refugee resettlement in this state," said Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, which administers the state's refugee resettlement program.

The bill's sponsors claim there is a lack of communication and transparency between the federal government and the state of Tennessee regarding the placement of refugees. They also claim that the federal government has shifted the cost of administering the state's refugee resettlement program to the state without authorization.

Proponents of the bill claim that the federal government is forcing the state to pick up the tab for state services utilized by refugees, such as TennCare and English-language instruction, which amounts to an "unfunded mandate."

Catholic Charities of Tennessee took over the job of administering Tennessee's refugee resettlement program in 2008 after state officials determined they did not have the administrative capacity to run it.

In states where governments have withdrawn from the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, the program is now run by private charities contracted by the U.S. Department of State under the Wilson-Fish program.

Wilson-Fish, operated under an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, is an alternative to traditional state administered refugee resettlement programs for providing cash and medical assistance and social services to refugees.

The Tennessee Office for Refugees, under the direction of Johnson, is a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, designated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to administer the state refugee resettlement program.

The local Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office acts as a subcontractor of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, and receives federal grant money from them to offer assistance and run programming to help refugees quickly achieve self-sufficiency.

"Opponents of the refugee resettlement program argue that the federal government is forcing states to pay an unfair burden of expenses for the refugees who are placed here," Murphy said.

However, the state Legislature conducted a study in 2013 that found that refugees actually add more to the state economy than they take out. "We know that refugee resettlement is not a burden on our state," Murphy told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Nashville Diocese.

The report by the fiscal review committee found that refugees contributed nearly $1.4 billion in state revenue from 1990 to 2012, compared with only $753 million spent by the state on refugees and their descendants during the same time period.

Critics of the study were skeptical of the results since there is no long term tracking of refugees and how they utilize programs like food stamps and Medicaid. Authors of the study had to assume they utilize these programs at the same rate as the general population.

About 58,000 refugees live in Tennessee, which is less than 1 percent of the state's population; last year about 1,600 refugees were resettled statewide, which is not a significant increase over past years.

The refugee resettlement program has been under intense scrutiny over the past several months, but that has not affected how Catholic Charities has been serving refugees. This lawsuit "doesn't have anything to do with how well refugees are doing in the state or how well we're providing services," Johnson said.

While the issue winds its way through the Legislature and the courts, "we'll just keep on doing our jobs and doing what we do to welcome and support refugees," she said.

[Laurence is a staff writer at the Tennessee Register, newspaper of Diocese of Nashville.]

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