Tennessee sues federal government over refugees

Tennessee became the first state in the nation on Monday to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement on the grounds of the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of several state lawmakers Monday morning in the western district of Tennessee, contends that the federal government has violated the Tenth Amendment, which says the federal government possesses only the powers delegated to it by the U.S. Constitution and that all other powers are reserved for the states.

The charge that the federal government is not complying with the Refugee Act of 1980, based on the Tenth Amendment, makes Tennessee's lawsuit the first of its kind. Other states have sued the federal government over refugee resettlement but on different legal grounds.

The nation continues to debate refugee resettlement and immigrant rights as it awaits President Donald Trump's new travel ban. The ban, set to take affect Thursday, bars travel for many people from six Muslim-majority counties and is considered by Trump's opponents to function essentially as a Muslim ban, although the administration denies this charge.

The lawsuit argues that the federal government has unduly forced states to pay for the refugee resettlement program. The federal refugee act was designed to create a permanent procedure for the admission of refugees into the United States.

The lawsuit asks the court to force the federal government to stop resettling refugees in Tennessee until all costs associated with the settlement are incurred by the federal government.

"Plaintiffs will suffer significant and irreparable harm unless this Court intervenes," the 15-page lawsuit states.

The defendants named in the lawsuit include the U.S. Department of State, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The state's lawsuit is brought by the the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based legal group that has taken on several conservative legal causes in recent years.

The selection of the Thomas More Law Center came after lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a resolution approving the lawsuit and after Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery declined to initiate the case.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition have slammed the forthcoming lawsuit saying it will negatively affect the state’s refugee community and perpetuate a culture of fear.

Joining the lawsuit are Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster.

"The Constitution does not allow the Federal Government to force me as the elected representative of the 24th Senate District to implement federal programs while they sit in Washington insulated from the consequences," Steven said in a news release.

Weaver, who helped push the resolution in the House last year, said the legislation was among the most important measure she's ever work on.

"The only way we can get back to our constitutional beginnings and the intent birthed by our Founding Fathers is to go and take it back," Weaver said. "We are looking forward to linking arms with the Thomas More Law Center for the long haul to regain sovereignty for our great State."

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the state's lawsuit was on hold as he sought a meeting with members of President Donald Trump's administration. Norris has not yet had the meeting.

Norris said in the news release that he hopes the lawsuit is not seen as a criticism of the Trump administration.

"We want to convey to the President that we support his efforts concerning immigration and refugee resettlement and believe this suit for declaratory relief is consistent with what would likely be his position regarding states like Tennessee which have withdrawn from the refugee resettlement program but are forced to continue paying costs associated with it," he said.

In the lawsuit, the Thomas More Law Center points to the fact that Tennessee opted out of the federal refugee resettlement program. Despite opting out, refugees have continued to be sent to Tennessee, with the federal government appointing Catholic Charities of Tennessee to administer the program.

"Operation of the federal refugee resettlement program commandeers Tennessee’s funds through Medicaid with the threatened loss of nearly $7 billion, amounting to 20 percent of its overall state budget — money that is needed to fund services that are critical to the health and welfare of countless Tennesseans," the lawsuit states.

Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator for Catholic Charities in Tennessee, said there aren't special costs that fall on the state when it comes to resettling refugees.

"The state doesn’t pay for any special services for them because they’re refugees. They’re not eligible for anything that you and I aren’t eligible for," Johnson said Monday in a telephone interview.

That means if a refugee meets the already existing eligibility requirements for TennCare, then the state may pay that benefit. Or if refugee children need to go to school, the state pays the same for the child's attendance as anyone else at the school. But any benefits related to employment are paid for by the federal government, Johnson said.

Catholic Charities resettled a little more than 2,000 refugees in Tennessee during the 2016 fiscal year, which started in October. The majority of those refugees came from countries not included on the president's new travel ban.

Dave Boucher contributed to this story.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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