Senate votes 27-5 to sue feds over refugees

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The state attorney general would be directed to mount a legal challenge to the federal refugee resettlement program in Tennessee under a resolution approved by the Senate on Monday.

The chamber voted 27-5 to pass the measure despite Republican Gov. Bill Haslam raising “reservations” last week about the Legislature trying to instruct the attorney general to sue. The governor also said some of the concerns raised about the identities of refugees in the aftermath of last year’s attack in Paris have been addressed.

“It’s public record,” Haslam said. “We get from the federal government all the refugees who have come in, where they’re from, age, gender.

“I don’t think at this point in time that this is something that’s stressing our system,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, a main sponsor of the resolution (SJR467, with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey listed as lead sponsor), said Monday that he was unaware of the governor’s comments and that the General Assembly will hire its own lawyer if Attorney General Herbert Slatery declines to get involved.

Dozens of protesters came to the Capitol to voice their opposition to the measure that Stephanie Teatro, a leader of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said would send the message that Tennessee is an “intolerant and unwelcoming state.”

Norris said he balances those concerns with the right of the state to control how it spends its money.

“I know there are folks here in the gallery today arguing the rights of immigrants and refugees,” Norris said. “I’m arguing the rights of citizens and sovereignty in Tennessee.”

Republican Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville said security concerns caused him to support the resolution.

“Our federal government has failed to protect us,” Green said. “In certain groups of those refugees, people who want to do harm to us are infiltrating this program.”

Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville was the lone Republican to vote against the measure. He didn’t speak in Monday’s floor debate, but in an earlier committee hearing said he worried the measure would be perceived as being “unwelcoming.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro said litigation on the refugee program “is misguided and really betrays the values of who we are.”

“This is one that is jumping on the bandwagon of something that doesn’t represent was is best about Tennessee,” said Yarbro, D-Nashville

Norris rejected questions about the motivation for the resolution.

“What could be more welcoming than a state that is willing to stand upon its rights, under the state and federal constituents, to protect the people within its borders?” he said. “What I, ask you, could possibly be more welcoming to that?”

The House would have to approve the measure for it to go into effect. The governor does not have the power to veto resolutions.