Gov. Bill Lee doubled down on his controversial – and unpopular – decision to say yes, rather than no, to more refugees in Tennessee during an interview with Michael DelGiorno on his radio program Monday morning, heard on Nashville’s 99.7 WTN.
In September, U.S. Republican President Donald Trump issued an executive order that enabled state and local governments to refuse resettling any more refugees in their states or localities.
As The Tennessee Star reported, Lee brought an early Christmas gift to leftists around the state. He announced one week before the holiday that he wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and invited the federal government to continue resettling refugees in Tennessee through voluntary agencies that take federal taxpayer dollars to do so.
This, even though even though Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and Republican Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said they disagreed with Lee’s choice.
Left wing groups, like The Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) have lobbied Gov. Lee aggressively to announce in favor of allowing more refugees to be resettled in the state. The federal government only provides eight months of refugee cash assistance for those ineligible for TANF and 8 months of refugee medical assistance for those ineligible for TennCare.
If a refugee becomes eligible for TANF and/or TennCare during that 8 month period of time, then the federal subsidy stops and they move to the state program which is funded by state and federal dollars. Federal grants for certain other social services are formula grants based on a combination of factors including the number of refugees so the lower the number, the lower the dollars. State taxpayers bear both short and long-terms costs.
In fact, the federal government in multiple reports has admitted to shifting federal costs associated with the resettlement program to the states because of reduced federal appropriations for refugee assistance.
The refugee resettlement program in Tennessee is managed by an arm of Catholic Charities, one of the federally approved Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGs) paid by the federal government to resettle refugees.
“If refugees are coming into America, and they are because President Trump is allowing 18,000 a year to the enter the country, then I want to have something to say about that process,” the governor told DelGiorno.
In fact, the executive order only offered the governor a yes or no option. The Funding Notice which operationalizes the consent process permits the federal resettlement contractors to resettle different classes of refugees anywhere between 50 to 100 miles from the contractor’s office regardless of whether a county consented.
Gov. Lee could have said no new refugees, and none of those 18,000 refugees, many of them from countries like Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as high tuberculosis burden countries, would have been resettled in Tennessee for the balance of FY 2020. Instead, Lee opted to say yes.
“These are people who actually need refuge. And we’ve done that for centuries but there’s been a lot of talk about fighting Trump on this. President Trump has designed this policy and asked whether or not governors want to engage with his administration to do this,” Lee added.
The Refugee Act of 1980, the enabling legislation that authorized the federal refugee resettlement program, was passed 40 years ago — not centuries ago.
Lee also tried to explain why 16 other Republican governors, including Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, also said yes to resettling refugees in their respective states.
“This process that President Trump has outlined and that all these Republican governors are engaging. You know why they’re engaging?” Lee asked rhetorically.
“Because if we don’t, the Democrats decide what this process looks like. If we engage in this then we get to have some control over who comes. Where they come from. How they’re assimilated,” Lee asserted.
Lee’s statement that if he did not say yes to more refugees “Democrats decide what this process looks like,” is not, however, supported by the facts of the resettlement program, either in states that have withdrawn from the federal refugee resettlement program, as Tennessee did in 2009, and where ORR designated a state replacement Non Governmental Organization (a VOLAG) to administer the program for the state, or states that have remained in the federal refugee resettlement program.
It is entirely unclear whether states that have remained in the federal refugee resettlement program have any real oversight since many of the decisions about resettlement actually happen between the VOLAGs and the State Dept. Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
Lee’s letter saying yes to more refugees does not give the state of Tennessee any control over the “process of refugee resettlement.” It simply means that a process that is out of its hands continues to remains out of its hands, but a greater number of refugees will be resettled in the state where, in a relatively short period of time, the social welfare benefits paid to the refugees come out of the pockets of Tennessee taxpayers.
Republicans and conservatives across the state have reacted strongly and negatively to Gov. Lee’s decision to say yes to more refugees.
A large contingent of Tennessee Star readers said earlier this month on our website and our Facebook page that they did not want Lee to allow more refugees in. Readers said if Lee did so that he would make himself a one-term governor.
Members of Lee’s staff gave no comment on the matter when we asked them for one.
But Lee himself had plenty to say to DelGiorno.
The governor also offered a hard to follow explanation as to why he believed his decision to say yes to refugees does not completely undermine the Tennessee General Assembly’s lawsuit against the federal government’s continued resettlement of refugees in the state.
The lawsuit is actually about the federal government’s forcing Tennessee to expend state money for a voluntary federal program from which the state withdrew.
The lawsuit is about federal commandeering of state funds. The federal government used to reimburse states 100 percent of the state funded portion of Medicaid for 3 full years for each refugee resettled. Then the feds began reducing the reimbursement because they appropriated fewer dollars for refugee assistance. After the state withdrew, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement designated Catholic Charities and they keep bringing refugees in and enrolling them in TennCare, which is partially funded by state tax dollars. Tennessee cannot refuse to provide refugees access to that program so it is forced to pay.
“Our state has filed a lawsuit against the federal government because of the way the Obama administration did this to protect our state from forced mandated refugee resettlement,” Lee said.
“That lawsuit is still in play. This [decision] does nothing to change that and I support that lawsuit. We ought to pursue it with vigor,” the governor added.
Despite his claim that “we ought to pursue” the lawsuit against the federal government “with vigor,” Gov. Lee has chosen not to file an amicus brief in federal court, which would have clearly boosted the standing of the plaintiff, The Tennessee General Assembly. Lee’s predecessor, Gov. Haslam, refused to be a part of the lawsuit.
Several legal experts familiar with refugee resettlement law tell The Tennessee Star that, contrary to the governor’s assertion, his decision to welcome refugees into the state completely undermines The Tennessee General Assembly’s lawsuit, and will likely be cited as a reason for dismissing the lawsuit.
Here are more of Lee’s remarks on his refugee decision, as he explained to DelGiorno. You can listen to the full interview here.
This is a very complex issue. It was very difficult to come to this decision. Because I, like so many people in this state, am very concerned about who comes into this country. Where they come from. What their background is. What their security risk is. Those are things that matter a lot. Their ability to assimilate. Those are things that matter.
And the Obama administration totally failed in that policy. They were letting in anybody and everybody and 90,000 refugees. And by the way, it’s also important to remember, this is not about illegal immigration. We should have no tolerance for illegal immigration. We need to have a closed border.
We need to be certain and we will be under my watch and that we don’t have sanctuary cities in this state. Those are all issues about illegal immigration. This is about refugee policy. And we’ve had refugees in this country for centuries and many of them who are persecuted Christians. Politically persecuted from war-torn regions.
These are people who actually need refuge. And we’ve done that for centuries but there’s been a lot of talk about fighting Trump on this. President Trump has designed this policy and asked whether or not governors want to engage with his administration to do this. I’m very concerned about safety and who’s coming into this state.
If refugees are coming into America, and they are because President Trump is allowing 18,000 a year to the entire country, then I want to have something to say about that process. See, President Trump vastly improved the way the refugee policy was before he got here. Thankfully, he vastly improved it. He reduced the numbers back to Reagan era numbers.
He improved the vetting process. And we have been speaking to them and talking to them about this process because I want to make sure it’s a process we want to live with and he improved the vetting process. If we engage in this than we have some control over it. And we have control over who comes in.
This process that President Trump has outlined and that all these Republican governors are engaging? You know why they’re engaging? Because if we don’t, the Democrats decide what this process looks like. If we engage in this then we get to have some control over who comes. Where they come from. How they’re assimilated.
How we engage the church community on how to assimilate them. Not the agencies that place them. How we actually provide refuge. Now let me say one last thing about this and you can ask me more about it if you want. By the way, the majority of these refugees are Christians. They are persecuted Christians.
I have worked with an agency in Nashville that’s a Christian organization working with refugees from Kurdistan. You know who some of these people that are in Nashville are? These are women and children whose husbands were killed because they worked alongside American soldiers in the Iraq war as interpreters. As scouts for us.
They helped our military men and their families are persecuted from it. And they’re fleeing that persecution. I am not going to turn my back on men that walked alongside and fought alongside our soldiers. I will, however, demand that the federal government work with us to create a pathway that we have some control over. (Inaudible crosstalk)
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