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 (NICE), the full committee decided to delay a vote until Tuesday, March 29th at 10:30pm.
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."
In a heated election year where xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric and 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 take the case pro-bono. Representative Weaver assumes that the Attorney General would not take the case since Governor Haslam 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 be 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.
Other states suing over refugee resettlement are losing in court.
SJR0467 alleges that the federal government has failed to consult as required by the Refugee Act of 1980. Similar arguments 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 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.