They Couldn’t Match Our Courage | The 2016 Campaign for Tuition Equality

April 20, 2016

They Couldn’t Match Our Courage
The 2016 Campaign for Tuition Equality

Dear friend,

Today, the final gavel will fall in the 109th General Assembly. In a few short weeks undocumented students in the Class of 2016 will walk across the graduation stage. They’ve been holding their breath, fingers-crossed, that tuition equality would pass the House of Representatives; that this year they would finally have a fair shot at going to college. And yet, the legislature will adjourn today, without bringing the tuition equality bill up for a vote.

In 2015, the Tennessee Senate passed the tuition equality bill by an overwhelming vote of 21-12, and the bill came within just one vote of passing on the House floor. This year, we needed 18 votes in the Calendar and Rules Committee to get a second chance on the House floor.

In an election season fueled by Presidential politics and anti-immigrant rhetoric, members of the House of Representatives chose to deny thousands of students access to higher education rather than cast a vote on this bill. There were not 18 members of the Calendar and Rules Committee willing to vote for tuition equality.

We are angered and saddened by the cowardice of many in the House of Representatives. We are deeply, painfully aware of how much is at stake for students and families -- how heartbreaking and high the cost of inaction is for so many of our members.

Over the past year, and for the first time, students in even the most rural towns publicly told their story of being undocumented and their hopes of going to college. Knowing their stories are the most powerful tool in this campaign, they came out as undocumented to teachers and legislators, leaving us all in awe of their courage. We wish the members of the House of Representatives could have demonstrated half as much courage as the undocumented students who have been leading our campaign.

For the past 12 months, we’ve been organizing in every corner of this state. We’ve built a coalition of thousands, from Dreamers to educators, from Memphis to Morristown. And we didn’t stand alone -- Farmers in every county voted to include tuition equality as part of the Tennessee Farm Bureau’s 2016 legislative agenda. The Tennessee Board of Regents included our bill as one of their key policy priorities for 2016, recognizing that it’s an important step in the Drive to 55. Statewide, chambers of commerce, university presidents, faith leaders, and community groups all joined us in pushing for tuition equality. To all of our partners in this campaign, we thank you. We also want to thank our sponsors, Senator Todd Gardenhire from Chattanooga and Representative Mark White from Memphis, for demonstrating what real political courage looks like.

To the undocumented students in the Class of 2016, getting ready to graduate, we see you. You are not alone. Thousands of undocumented students in Tennessee have walked across the graduation stage before you, also effectively denied access to higher education. We’re here for you, and we won’t stop fighting for our education, our families, and dignity for all. And we hope you'll join us.

Through this four year campaign, undocumented students have found their voice and found their community. Our movement is powerful and our members are resilient. Despite the failure of the House of Representatives to take action this year, we know that history and momentum are on our side and that it’s only a matter of time before tuition equality becomes a reality in Tennessee. We will turn our anger into action, harness the courage of Dreamers across the state, and come back again for the 2017 legislative session stronger than ever. And we need you to join us. Please share this and make a commitment now, that the Class of 2016 will be the last class to graduate without tuition equality.


Cesar Bautista, Dreamer & TIRRC Youth Organizer;
Jazmin Ramirez, Dreamer & Vice President of the TIRRC Board of Directors; and
Stephanie Teatro, TIRRC Co-Executive Director


P.S. Stay tuned for more details about what’s next for the 2017 campaign and our strategy to win tuition equality. To read Chairman Mark White’s response and a quote from one of our members who is getting ready to graduate, read our press statement.


PRESS STATEMENT: House of Representatives Votes to Turn Its Back on Refugees 

House of Representatives Votes to Turn Its Back on Refugees 
Passing SJR0467 puts Tennessee on the wrong side of history 

NASHVILLE - This afternoon the House of Representatives voted to pass SJR0467 by a vote of 69 to 25, directing the Attorney General to sue the federal government over the refugee resettlement program. If the Attorney General chooses not to sue, SJR0467 allows the General Assembly to hire outside counsel to pursue the litigation. The Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, a self-proclaimed conservative law firm whose mission is to protect and defend "American Judeo-Christian heritage," had shopped around this lawsuit for months and embarrassingly found a partner in the Tennessee legislature. In February, the Senate passed the resolution by a 27 to 5 vote. 

Despite efforts by the resolution's sponsors to characterize SJR0467 as a mere constitutional exercise not intended to be unwelcoming, the true intentions of the resolution - to limit or stop Muslim refugee resettlement - are clear. During discussion on the bill, representatives have invoked the tragic events in Brussels and Paris as justification for this resolution, and the Senate sponsor has for weeks been eroding support for refugee resettlement by linking refugees to terrorism in his petition to the Attorney General. 

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 House of Representatives' vote today. This passage of this resolution, and the litigation that will follow, puts Tennessee on the wrong side of history. Our legislators and the citizens of Tennessee will undoubtedly look back at this moment with great shame.

Passing this resolution and signing taxpayers up for costly and embarrassing litigation makes Tennessee among the most unwelcoming and hostile states for refugee families. This dangerous resolution also provides political cover to those who will seek to advance more extreme policies or act out their xenophobic biases.

In the wake of global tragedies, we need legislators to demonstrate real leadership and moral courage. Despite serious concerns about the legal and procedural questions around this resolution, the legislature clearly finds it more politically expedient to scapegoat people fleeing persecution than to do the hard work of public policy, which requires being honest with constituents and making real investments in public safety and refugee integration. Instead of leadership and courage, opportunistic legislators have instead engaged in the worst kind of political theater, playing off the fears of Tennesseans to score political points this election season. 

This resolution does nothing to address the security concerns of some Tennesseans in the wake of global tragedies. It will have no impact on the already lengthy and rigorous vetting process refugees undergo. Turning our backs on people fleeing persecution and violence does nothing to make us safer. Instead, we betray our values and damage our global reputation as a welcoming place for all." 


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.  



Students Ask Governor Haslam, Legislators to Pass Tuition Equality, Drive to 55 Bill

Will Immigrant Students in the Class of 2016 Be Able to Go to College This Fall? 

This morning, dozens of students donned in caps and gowns sent a strong message to members of the House and Governor Haslam to support HB675 before the session adjourns. After asking members of the House whether or not they would take another step towards the Drive to 55, students visited the Governor's office and asked him to be a champion for the bill, which so clearly aligns with his legislative priorities.

There are hundreds of graduating seniors in the class of 2016 that will not go to college if HB675 does not move forward by the end of session. After the bill failed to pass last year by just one vote, graduates from the class of 2015 anxiously await a vote on HB675, in hopes they might be able to enroll in college this fall.

Despite passing the Senate 21-12 and gaining a majority in the House 49-47, having a positive fiscal note, and earning broad support from the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the Tennessee Board of Regents, and several chambers of commerce, it remains unclear whether or not the bill will get a vote in the House this year. If the Haslam Administration and the General Assembly are serious about their Drive to 55 goals, they should ensure swift passage of HB675 before the session adjourns. It is disappointing that rather than giving any consideration HB675 and making sure more students have access to college this fall, legislators instead are worrying about who can use what bathroom and if they can bring guns on campus.

Tennesseans will be watching to see if the legislature takes seriously it's responsibility to increase our college enrollment rates and whether or not they will allow the graduating class of 2016 to have greater access.



Anti-Refugee Resolution Passes State Government Committee





Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Anti-Refugee Resolution Passes State Government Committee
Despite amendment, SJR0467 is beyond repair

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.  

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TIRRC is a statewide, immigrant and refugee-led collaboration whose mission is to empower immigrants and refugees throughout Tennessee to develop a unified voice, defend their rights, and create an atmosphere in which they are recognized as positive contributors to the state. Since its founding in 2001, TIRRC has worked to develop immigrant leadership, build the capacity of its immigrant-led member organizations, help immigrant community members understand and engage in the civic process, and educate the public about policies that would better promote integration of new immigrants and facilitate their full participation in US society. In just a few years TIRRC has grown from a grassroots network of community leaders into one of the most diverse and effective coalitions of its kind, a model for emerging immigrant rights organizations in the Southeast and throughout the United States. 





thedatabank, inc.


Anti-refugee Resolution Passes First Hurdle in the TN House of Representatives

Representative Terri Lynn Weaver defends SJR0467 before the State Government Committee on March 22, 2016.

Last week, the State Government Sub-Committee voted* to advance SJR0467 – the Anti-Refugee Resolution – to a full committee vote. SJR0467 directs the Attorney General to sue the federal government over failure to consult the state over refugee resettlement and mandating appropriation of state resources. If the Attorney General chooses not to file a lawsuit, this resolution allows the General Assembly to hire outside counsel. This week, after hearing testimony from TIRRC, the Tennessee Office for Refugees, and Gatluack Thatch, the President and CEO of Nashville International Center for Empowerment, the full committee decided to delay a vote until Tuesday March 29th at 10:30 pm. 

To watch the discussion in the sub-committee click here and for the full committee click here.

Despite the House and Senate sponsors’ best efforts to characterize SJR0467 as a mere constitutional exercise to clarify outstanding questions on states' rights, the true intentions of the resolution – to stop or limit Muslim refugee resettlement in Tennessee – were made clear in this week’s full committee meeting.

Some representatives made thinly veiled Islamophobic arguments in favor of this resolution by invoking the tragic events in Brussels. Representative Lamberth (Cottontown) said, “With some of the stuff that we’re seeing in the news, even today, with the devastation and loss of life over in Europe, I think it’s a very timely issue to ensure that Tennesseans are safe. Representative Durham (Franklin) added, “Even if 1,599 refugees are completely safe, it only takes one to do something very heinous. 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.” Representative Todd (Collierville) went further by using apocalyptic rhetoric. He said, “Many have been sent by ISIS as we all know — that’s their intention, that’s their end goal — is to destroy this nation from the inside out and the Europeans are already gone. We may be the last country standing.”

Above: Senate sponsor Mark Norris' petition urging the Attorney General to act on SJR467 in order to "End Dangerous Refugee Resettlement" is advertised on Google.

In a heated election year where xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric are increasingly mainstream, legislators are playing off the fears and worst instincts of their constituents to score political points, no matter what the cost to refugee families. Holly Johnson from the Tennessee Office for Refugee Resettlement spoke directly to these efforts by reminding representatives that, “Refugees are real people with real lives. They are not the images we see on tv. They are not their story. They are not pawns in a political contest. They are just like you and me.” 

Even in this hostile climate, witnesses did raise common-sense concerns and questions about the merits and practicalities of the lawsuit that this resolution enacts. In the sub-committee meeting, Nathan Ridley, an attorney and TIRRC lobbyist, discussed the potential cost of litigation to Tennessee taxpayers.  Stephanie Teatro, TIRRC Co-Executive Director, raised doubts about the merits of the case given that similar litigation is failing in other states (see below). Holly Johnson, Director of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, spoke about the financial contributions of refugees and resettlement programs to the state. Ms. Johnson said, "...the fiscal note of more than $10,000 doesn't paint an accurate picture of the cost of the lawsuit. It doesn't include the more than $15 million lost in federal funding if the program ends, doesn't take into consideration the loss of the economic contributions of refugees, and doesn't account for the cost associated with refugees who move to Tennessee after being resettled elsewhere and have no programs available to serve them." 

The House sponsor, Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (Lancaster), argued that this lawsuit would not cost the state a dime since the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan based law firm, would to take the case pro-bono. Representative Weaver assumes that the Attorney General would not take the case since Governor Haslam has recently registered his opposition to such litigation. He said, “I do have some concerns about that in terms of one branch of government ordering the attorney general what to do.” He went on, “I know there’s remedies — if he (Attorney General Herbert Slatery) doesn’t want to do that, they can hire somebody. But I’m not sure that’s a really good trend for us to be in state government.” In December, the Attorney General opined that the state is precluded from barring refugees.

As a result of the doubt cast by witnesses on the lawsuit, Representative Weaver reluctantly introduced an amendment that attempts to safeguard Tennessee taxpayers should the General Assembly hire outside counsel. However, the amendment only exposes the risk of litigation by outside counsel and the weaknesses of the legal arguments in SJR0467. As Ms. Johnson stated in regards to a potential lawsuit, “At worst, it ends refugee resettlement in the state, and then there's the loss of revenue, there's the loss of our reputation as a welcoming Southern state. At best, we become fodder for late-night talk show hosts." 

Unfortunately, legislators attempts to scapegoat refugees in order to score political points trumped any common sense arguments against this resolution. With or without amendments, SJR0467 betrays our values and makes our state less safe and welcoming for refugee families by stoking fear and anxiety over changing demographics and peoples' religious beliefs.

In February, the resolution passed the Senate overwhelmingly with a 27-5 vote, and has gained wide support in the House of Representatives. Over 70 representatives have reportedly signed a letter in support of the resolution. If SJR0467 passes the full State Government committee next week it would likely move to the Finance Sub-Committee and the full committee before a House floor vote. 

*Vote count in State Government Sub-Committee: SJR0467 passed the State Government Sub-Committee in a voice vote. Representative Jernigan (Old Hickory) and Representative Ramsey (Maryville) were recorded as voting "no".  

Please take a moment to send a message to your representative and urge them to vote NO to SJR0467. 

For more information on SJR0467 see our policy brief, and check out TIRRC's report on the long history of anti-refugee organizing in Tennessee, Countering the Backlash: Strategies for Responding to Anti-Refugee and Xenophobic Activity from the New South 



SJR0467 alleges that the federal government has failed to consult as required by the Refugee Act of 1980. Similar argument is being made in Texas and Alabama cases against the federal government. In the Texas lawsuit, the court denied the state a preliminary injunction against the federal government stating:

Because neither the Refugee Act nor the APA creates a cause of action for the Commission to compel advance consultation regarding the resettlement of individual Syrian refugees in Texas, the Commission is unlikely to succeed on the merits…Regular advance consultation is not a rule, order, license, sanction, or relief within the meaning of section 551. Rather, the Refugee Act’s advance consultation requirement is best understood as an ongoing, dynamic process….The Court, however, cannot interfere with the executive’s discharge of its foreign affairs and national security duties based on a possibility of harm, but only on a proper showing of substantial threat of irreparable injury and a legal right to relief.  


Alabama did not request a preliminary injunction and the case is currently pending before district court.