Senator Mark Norris
9A Legislative Plaza,
Nashville, Tennessee 37243-0232
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©2017 Mark Norris
By Joel Ebert, USA TODAY NETWORK, The Tennessean, KnoxNews.com
May 20, 2016
Despite having concerns, Gov. Bill Haslam will allow Tennessee to become the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement on the grounds of the 10th Amendment.
On Friday, Haslam announced his decision to allow the measure, which directs Attorney General Herbert Slatery to sue the federal government for noncompliance of the Refugee Act of 1980, to take effect without his signature.
The federal act was designed to create a permanent procedure for the admission of refugees into the United States.
In his explanation, Haslam said the resolution “directs the Attorney General to initiate legal action regarding refugee placements and authorizes the General Assembly to hire outside counsel in the event the Attorney General does not pursue action in this case.”
“I trust the Attorney General to determine whether the state has a claim in this case or in any other, and I have constitutional concerns about one branch of government telling another what to do. I am returning SJR 467 without my signature and am requesting that the Attorney General clarify whether the legislative branch actually has the authority to hire outside counsel to represent the state.
“I also question whether seeking to dismantle the Refugee Act of 1980 is the proper course for our state. Rather, I believe the best way to protect Tennesseans from terrorism is to take the steps outlined in my administration’s Public Safety Action Plan, which enhances our ability to analyze information for links to terrorist activity, creates a Cyber Security Advisory Council, restructures our office of Homeland Security, establishes school safety teams, and provides training for active shooter incidents and explosive device attacks.”
Refugee resettlement has become a hot-button issue throughout Tennessee and the rest of the country as the nation continues to take in people from around the world, including Syrians who have fled their country amid a bloody civil war.
Proponents of the measure have argued the lawsuit is necessary because the federal government has failed to consult with Tennessee on the continued placement of refugees.
Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, argue the resolution will negatively affect the state’s refugee community and perpetuate a culture of fear.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who was among the more outspoken advocates of the resolution, said it is necessary to initiate legal proceedings for declaratory relief given the fact that the federal government has not consulted with the state on the resettlement of refugees.
The legislation received wide support in both chambers, with as many as 23 Republicans sponsoring the measure in the Senate. The chamber approved it with a 27-5 vote on Feb. 22. The House voted 69-25 in favor of the resolution on April 19.
While considering the resolution, several Democrats and even Haslam, a Republican, questioned a provision in the legislation that allows the Legislature to hire outside counsel in the event that the state’s attorney general declines to sue the federal government.
Attorney General Slatery has not indicated whether he would follow the legislature’s directive.
“We are aware of the resolution and will consider it seriously and respectfully,” Harlow Sumerford, a spokesman for Slatery’s office, told The Tennessean in February.
Last week Sumerford elaborated, saying, “Our office continues to review ways to protect the State’s interests in this matter. This was certainly the case in December 2014, when we joined the Texas litigation challenging the President’s executive action on immigration. Due, in part, to inaction by Congress, there is understandable fear and frustration among many on this issue. Should the resolution become effective, it provides a number of options and we will carefully consider the best option to continue to protect the interests of Tennessee.”
Sponsors of the measure have indicated the Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit public interest Michigan-based law firm, will provide free legal services to the state.
The law center has been engaged in “fighting the culture war being waged against families by abortionists, pornographers, those against school prayer, those against the Ten Commandments, those against God,” according to a testimonial found on the firm’s website from Michael Savage of Savage Nation. Former U.S. Rep. Allen West said the law center has initiated and funded more cases “challenging the Stealth Jihad being waged against our Nation.”
Prior to Haslam announcing his decision, the ACLU and TIRRC encouraged the governor to veto the measure.
“Attempting to block refugee resettlement blames refugees for the very terror they are fleeing and erodes our own civil liberties,” Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director, previously said. “Especially in these times, using fear and misplaced blame to pursue litigation challenges the values of fairness and equal treatment that are at the heart of our constitutional guarantees.”
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the Legislature tried to “twist the arm of the attorney general.”
But Haslam was also lobbied by Norris, who started an online petition, with the headline, “Don’t let potential terrorists come to Tennessee,” which asks Tennesseans to join in the effort to ask the attorney general to act.
While some believed the legislation could not be vetoed by Haslam, the governor’s office noted that the state’s constitution indicates otherwise because it is actually a joint resolution.
At an end-of-session news conference, Haslam said he believed he could veto the measure because it pertained to a substantive matter but declined to say which way he was leaning.
Two other states — Texas and Alabama — have sued the federal government over refugee resettlement, Tennessee’s lawsuit will be the first of its kind in that it will be based on the 10th Amendment, which states that the federal government possesses only powers delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution and that all other powers are reserved for the states.
While arguing in favor of the resolution, Norris pointed out that although the state opted out of the federal resettlement program in 2008 under then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, the fees have required Tennessee to participate in the program.
Although 14 states, including Tennessee and most recently Kansas and New Jersey, have opted out of the federal program, that does not mean refugees are not sent to their states. Instead, voluntary agencies, also known as VOLAGs, have entered into cooperative agreements with the U.S. State Department to coordinate resettlement efforts. In Tennessee, Catholic Charities handles refugee resettlement.
Norris has argued that the state is being forced to appropriate funds for as many as 11 programs, including Medicaid, to support refugee resettlement.
Catholic Charities has said funding for resettlement comes entirely from the federal government.
Beyond the cost issue, another reason advocates have argued for the measure is due to safety concerns about continually allowing refugees to come to Tennessee — although Haslam previously said he does not share such concerns.
In December, Haslam said the state should not “abandon our values by completely shutting our doors to those who seek the freedom we enjoy.”
As the measure made its way through the Legislature, some lawmakers pointed to the March 22 terrorist attack in Brussels to further that point.
“I just don’t understand how at this time with all that’s going on in the world … how we could not do everything we can to stop the influx of refugees from countries that we know have ties to terrorism, such as Syria,” said Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, during a March 22 committee meeting.
Between last October and March, only 17 of the 702 refugees, or 2 percent, who were resettled in Tennessee came from Syria, according to statics maintained by Catholic Charities. The vast majority — 514 — were from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Somalia and Iraq.
Overall, Tennessee was 18th in the nation in terms of the total number of refugees received during that time period, according to federal statistics.
Those defending the resettlement program have noted the financial benefit refugees provide to the state. A 2013 report presented to the Joint Government Operations Legislative Advisory Committee determined that refugees and their descendants provided $1.4 billion in revenue for Tennessee between 1990 and 2012, compared with requiring $753 million in state support.
Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman, Spencer Bowers, criticized Haslam’s decision.
“Governor Haslam caved to right-wing extremist, once again, today by allowing Tennessee to be the first state in the nation to sue the Federal Government over the refugee resettlement. Refusing refugees who are in desperate need of place to seek shelter from war and hardship creates a culture of fear for the immigrant communities in Tennessee. It’s not who we are as a state and Governor Haslam should be ashamed of his inaction today.”