Revised refugee lawsuit legislation advances

A resolution that seeks to require the state to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement passed another key hurdle on Tuesday, says The Tennessean.

With a voice vote, the House State Government Committee approved the measure that seeks to force Attorney General Herbert Slatery to sue the federal government over the Refugee Act of 1980. In the event that Slatery refuses to sue the feds, the resolution includes a provision that would allow the legislature to hire outside counsel.

Proponents of the measure (SJR467) have argued a lawsuit is necessary because the federal government has failed to consult with Tennessee on the continued placement of refugees. In addition they say the feds have shifted the cost of administering the program to the state without lawmakers specifically authorizing the appropriation of funds, while also pointing to security concerns.

Gov. Bill Haslam has said he is not concerned about the safety issue, noting that those who come to the state through the refugee resettlement program are properly screened, while adding that he is concerned that hiring outside counsel could set a bad precedent.

Several opponents of the resolution say it ignores the financial benefits refugees provide the state and indicates the state is unfriendly to those who have fled their country because of persecution.

“We need to continue to be a welcoming place for refugees, for immigrants,” said Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville. “This definitely sends the wrong message.”

Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, disagreed with Powell’s assessment, saying, “Tennessee, I think, has open arms. We’re not saying that we have closed doors.”

Sanderson said the resolution is simply an attempt to “hold those responsible in Washington accountable.”

Note: The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition contends the new amendment means “the only outside counsel who may take this case will be driven more by extreme ideology than sound legal reasoning and the best interests of Tennesseans.” News release below.

News release fromTennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition
NASHVILLE – This morning the House State Government Committee voted to pass SJR0467, the anti-refugee resolution that directs the Attorney General to sue the federal government to end refugee resettlement. Representatives Durham, Hulsey, Lamberth, Littleton, Ramsey, Sanderson and Todd voted in favor of the resolution, while Jernigan, Powell, and Shaw voted against.

After lengthy discussions in the sub-committee on March 16th and in the full committee last week on March 22nd, the committee continued with heated debate but made no effort to address the many unanswered legal and procedural questions that were raised this or last week.

The committee passed an amended version of the resolution. The amendment seeks to ensure that if the Speakers of the House and Senate choose to employ outside counsel no state funds may be used in support of the litigation. This amendment does not address the costs that will be incurred should the Attorney General choose to represent the state in the case and all but ensures that the only outside counsel who may take this case will be driven more by extreme ideology than sound legal reasoning and the best interests of Tennesseans. If the amendment seeks to safeguard Tennessee taxpayers, it is also an admission that this lawsuit is risky, potentially costly, and unlikely to succeed.

Despite committee members best attempts to amend the resolution, SJR0467 is beyond repair. The resolution is one of the most extreme pieces of anti-refugee legislation being debated in the nation. Although it has not yet passed the General Assembly, the resolution has already created a climate of fear in refugee communities and has already done great damage to our global reputation.

The following is a quote from Stephanie Teatro, Co-Executive Director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition:

“We are disappointed but not surprised by the vote today. Although the committee members were made aware of the resolution’s many risks and legal flaws, members chose to gamble with our tax dollars and state reputation by voting to sue the federal government.

It’s clear that this resolution is being used as a sort of political Rorschach test, allowing supporters to assign whatever meaning is most politically expedient. The sponsor attempted to frame the resolution as a targeted lawsuit and a reasonable check on federal overreach, while supporters of the resolution pointed to global tragedies like what we just saw in Brussels as the impetus for the resolution, although the resolution does not address the vetting process or security concerns. The passage of SJR0467 was an exercise of political theater and election year politics at its worst.

Instead of demonstrating true leadership and moral courage, members instead chose to scapegoat refugees by scaring Tennesseans into supporting a frivolous and costly lawsuit to score political points in this election season. We hope leaders in the finance committees will be more honest with Tennesseans about this resolution. Shutting the door on refugees won’t do anything but waste taxpayer resources and embarrass our state.”

National activists have been pushing some of the most extreme anti-refugee policy in Tennessee for years. And more recently, anti-refugee organizations have been shopping around this very lawsuit for months and have embarrassingly found a potential partner in Tennessee. The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition has documented the long history of anti-refugee policy in Tennessee in a recent report, Countering the Backlash: Strategies for Responding to Anti-Refugee and Xenophobic Activity from the New South.