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Tennessee to continue accepting refugees as Republican gov. upsets conservatives

Tennessee to continue accepting refugees as Republican gov. upsets conservatives

Protesters gather outside the Trump Building at 40 Wall St. to take action against America's refugee ban in New York City, U.S., March 28, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has given consent to allow refugee resettlement in 2020 in accordance with President Donald Trump’s executive order giving states and localities the ability to block resettlement. 

Lee, a Republican, made the announcement Wednesday as the deadline for consent nears. 

Tennessee is among just a handful of Republican-led states that have offered consent to refugee resettlement following Trump’s Sept. 26 executive order.

However, Lee’s announcement has upset some prominent Republicans in the state as Tennessee is fighting a federal lawsuit claiming that the federal government is violating the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by forcing states to pay for costs related to refugee resettlement. 

In a statement, Lee stressed that the U.S. has always been a “shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed,” especially for those suffering from religious persecution. 

“My administration has worked extensively to determine the best outcome for Tennessee, and I will consent to working with President Trump and his administration to responsibly resettle refugees,” Lee stated. 

Lee sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday thanking the administration for “consulting with the states to ensure this process is successful.” 

While Trump’s executive order faces a lawsuit claiming it oversteps the bounds of federalism by giving leaders of states and localities the ability to opt-out of refugee resettlement, Lee’s letter to Pompeo argues the opposite.

“We feel strongly that this consultation is appropriate and that the federal government would be overstepping by requiring states to participate in this program,” Lee contended.

Lee’s decision comes just over a week after he was sent a letter signed by over 500 concerned evangelicals calling on Lee to approve refugee resettlement. 

According to the letter, which was organized by the evangelical resettlement agency World Relief and the Evangelical Immigration Table, over 12,700 refugees have been resettled in the state in the past decade.  

“Many refugees are resettled to Tennessee because they already have family members in the state,” the letter reads.

“If Tennessee restricts their resettlement, many will likely exercise their lawful right to simply move to Tennessee immediately after being resettled in another state so as to join their family — but in doing so, they will move away from vital employment assistance, language acquisition and cultural adjustment resources offered by their resettlement organization.”

As The Tennessean reports, Lee and his wife, Maria, have been active in Christian missionary work internationally as well as with refugees in the Nashville area. Lee also campaigned on his Christian beliefs during the 2018 election. 

Tennessee Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, both Republicans, voiced their displeasure with Lee’s decision in a joint statement. They said they would have preferred Lee to “hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state.”

“In 2016, the General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing the desire of our citizens to file a federal lawsuit to halt refugee resettlement in Tennessee,” the McNally-Sexton statement reads. “Our opinion has not changed on this issue since legal action was taken.”

Tennessee officially stopped participating in the federal refugee program in 2008. But according to the Associated Press, Catholic Charities of Tennessee administers a program that receives federal funding to provide medical assistance and social services to refugees. 

The number of refugees being resettled to Tennessee has declined over the last few years as the U.S. government has resettled drastically fewer refugees in the last few years under the Trump administration. 

Although over 2,000 refugees were resettled in Tennessee in 2016, only 478 refugees were resettled to the state in 2018 and 692 were resettled there in 2019, according to AP. 

Also on Wednesday, Wisconsin’s Democrat Gov. Tony Evers announced his consent to having refugees resettled in the badger state. Unlike Lee, Evers criticized the new refugee consent process. 

"I am disappointed that the administration has created an overly cumbersome and inappropriate process for those involved in refugee resettlement," Evers wrote in his letter to Pompeo.

A growing list of states has consented to refugee resettlement for 2020. Other conservative-led states that have done so include Iowa, Arizona and Utah.  

North Dakota’s Republican Gov. Doug Burgum announced his consent for resettlement in November. But he stressed that refugees will only be resettled in localities that approve.

Evangelicals have also sent letters to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbot urging him to consent to refugee resettlement. 

Texas has resettled over 80,000 refugees since 2002, according to Pew Research. Texas also joined liberal states California, New York and Washington in hosting about a quarter of the refugees resettled in the U.S. in the fiscal year 2019.

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