Slatery won’t sue feds over refugees in TN despite legislative mandate

By Travis Loller, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery won’t sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program.

A General Assembly resolution passed earlier this year had demanded legal action. Gov. Bill Haslam allowed it to take effect without his signature in May.

“I have constitutional concerns about one branch of government telling another what to do,” Haslam wrote to lawmakers at the time.

In a Tuesday letter to the clerks of the state Senate and House of Representatives, Slatery outlined what he sees as lawmakers’ two concerns about refugee resettlement. One is that federal officials are not properly consulting with state and local officials, as required by law. The other is that the federal government is confiscating state resources by coercing Tennessee to accept refugees.

Slatery notes in the letter that the consulting issue already has been dismissed in federal court. He says the coerced spending issue is an untested legal theory that is unlikely to succeed.

To address lawmaker concerns, Slatery suggests state officials request quarterly meetings with federal officials and begin attending the meetings conducted by Catholic Charities, which runs the Tennessee Office for Refugees. He also suggests state officials insist upon better information about refugees in Tennessee, including long term tracking of their assimilation.

And he says a community can request a moratorium on new refugee resettlement if the community lacks the capacity to absorb them without harming existing residents. The director of the federal program is required to take such requests into account.

The letter delegates authority to sue over refugee resettlement to the General Assembly’s staff attorneys, should lawmakers still wish to pursue legal action.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition Director Stephanie Teatro issued a statement urging lawmakers to drop the matter.

“If the legislature proceeds with SJR467, we will not only be turning our backs on refugee families fleeing violence and persecution but also the advice of our state’s highest ranking legal officer,” the statement reads.

But Sen. Mark Norris, the resolution’s sponsor, said he plans to interview at least two law firms that are interested in taking the case for free. He said he believes the suit can “clear the air of a lot of suspicion and anxiety around the program.”

As to Slatery’s suggestions for meetings with federal officials and Catholic Charities, he said lawmakers are willing but so far have not found either to be forthcoming.