On Monday, February 22, our Senators voted 27-5 in favor of SJR0467 - a resolution directing the Attorney General to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement. The lawsuit is the latest in a multi-year campaign to create a hostile environment for immigrants and refugees in Tennessee. This resolution came on the heels of months of anti-refugee backlash that has fueled xenophobic, Islamophobic, and nativist rhetoric and policies across the country. As a result, SJR0467 gained momentum and went to the floor with 25 cosponsors.
However, lawmakers underestimated the broad and strong opposition to this resolution. Tennesseans organized to demonstrate that shutting the door on people fleeing persecution is not who we are nor does it reflect our values. Ahead of the vote, TIRRRC presented each Senator with a petition of 2,300+ signatures from across the state. Hundreds also sent emails and made calls to their elected officials urging them to vote no. As Senators entered the chamber, over 120 people greeted them with signs stating, "We Welcome Refugees."
In a misguided effort to address the concerns of refugee supporters in the room, Senator Norris suggested that the rights of immigrants and refugees and the rights of citizens and state sovereignty were not mutually exclusive. Not only did he neglect the fact that refugees are on a pathway to citizenship, he also went to great lengths to insist that the resolution and lawsuit are not "unwelcoming." Norris asked, "What could be more welcoming than a state that is willing to stand upon its rights, its rights under the state and federal constitution to protect the people the people within its borders? What I ask you, could be more welcoming than that?" Trying to frame this resolution as "welcoming" is on par with his earlier claims that this lawsuit is a "friendly" clarification of outstanding legal questions. Most shamefully, Senator Norris attempted to speak to the experience of refugees, some who were present, by stating, "You come here, more likely than not, because you flee those places where you has no such rights. Would you feel welcome in a state that had those rights, but didn't rise to enforce them?" Despite the Senator's best efforts to shine a positive light on this resolution, it is in face "a wolf in sheep's clothing."
This resolution is being used as a catch-all -- a sort of political Rorschach test -- allowing supporters to assign whatever meaning is most politically expedient. Some say the lawsuit promotes national security and protects Tennesseans from terrorism; others suggest it is about fiscal responsibility and protecting the Constitution. These arguments purport to solve problems that simply don't exit.
For example, Senator Crowe claimed that legislators do not have information on refugees. He said, "We want to welcome people, but we want to know who they are, where they come from, where they are being put in our state, and by whom." But Gov. Haslam recently stated that the state does have information on refugees. He told reporters, "It's public record. We get from the federal government the names of all the refugees that come in, where they're from, age, gender. And I don't think at this point in time this is something that's stressing our system." In fact, the Tennessee Office of Refugees make this information available and accessible on their public website.
Furthermore, our Attorney General recently opined that our state is precluded from barring refugees, but our elected officials are trying to circumvent the law by making weak legal claims. Senators continually asserted that the federal government is enforcing an unfunded mandate on a program that the state does not want. Senator Kelsey said, "The federal government cannot simply tell us that we are going to have to spend our tax dollars on folks they are sending to us through a program that is against our will."
Repeatedly, lawmakers claimed to be protecting taxpayers from footing the bill for refugees. Senator Beavers stated, "It's our job to protect taxpayers' money. That's why this makes sense." The suggestion by lawmakers that Tennessee taxpayers would prefer to foot the bill for a lengthy and frivolous lawsuit, rather than invest in the integration and success of refugee families is insulting and disingenuous. Moreover, the federal covers 100% of costs associated with refugee resettlement. Some refugees may be eligible for state services, but 81% of employable adult refugees are employed and paying taxes within 8 months of arrival. Refugees demonstrate great courage, resilience, and perseverance and bring needed skills and entrepreneurial spirits to our communities. They add to our workforce, grow our tax base, and strengthen our economy. A 2013 report by the fiscal review committee found that refugees and their families have contributed more than $1.4 billion to the state, compared to only $753 million spent investing in their integration and success.
Regardless of the arguments put forth by lawmakers, it is clear that this resolution aims to stop refugee resettlement in our state. However, the General Assembly has made an unfortunate calculation that scapegoating refugees will score them political points this election season. They underestimate the growing power of the immigrant and refugee vote and the thousands of Tennesseans who are outraged by the lack of moral courage and leadership.
After the Senate vote, and after receiving more than 900 emails from TIRRC members opposing this resolution, Gov. Haslam criticized this resolution and claimed that a lawsuit would set a bad precedent. SJR0467 heads to the House of Representatives for consideration in the coming days.
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.