Franklin County is considering taking a local stance against Gov. Bill Lee’s move to have Tennessee continue accepting refugees.
On Jan. 9, the Legislative Committee discussed drafting a resolution that would clearly air that the county is opposed to being forced to participate in a relocation plan that County Mayor David Alexander said would be a costly burden on taxpayers and non-government entities that would have to share in the effort.
He said the county would have to provide housing, other benefits and schooling that would be costly. He also said Franklin County’s two hospitals have had to deal with millions of dollars in unpaid medical claims, and adding refugees to the list would only increase the amount.
Alexander said increasing the economic burden on the hospitals could sway them to close their operations in Franklin County.
Commissioner David Eldridge asked what the difference is between an illegal immigrant and a refugee.
Alexander said illegal immigrants are just what the first word of the title signifies — that they are in the country illegally.
He said refugees have legal status and come from nations such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries with distressed political atmospheres.
Alexander provided the Legislative Committee with potential wording to consider if the County Commission considers adopting a resolution at a later date.
He gave four examples that say:
● BE IT RESOLVED that Franklin County does not want to be forced into participating the federal refugee resettlement program due to either Gov. Lee’s consent and/or being within the permissible placement radius of a resettlement agency office.
● BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Franklin County requests that Gov. Lee retract his consent for initial resettlement in Tennessee for both the one-year period of time as stated in his letter and/or the actual consent period required by the funding notices.
● BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Franklin County requests that, in the event Gov. Lee does not retract his consent for initial refugee resettlement, Gov. Lee submit a revised letter of consent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton exempting non-consenting counties from forced participation in the initial resettlement of refugees in Tennessee.
● BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Franklin County requests that Gov. Lee inform the resettlement agencies which maintain offices and operations in Tennessee that they may not place arriving refugees in non-consenting counties.
Lee announced in December 2019 that Tennessee will continue to accept refugees, joining only a handful of Republican-led states as a year-end deadline was approaching to inform the federal government about the state’s stance on resettlement.
“The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution,” Lee said in a press release. “My administration has worked extensively to determine the best outcome for Tennessee, and I will consent to working with President Donald Trump and his administration to responsibly resettle refugees.”
The Republican governor and his wife, Maria, have been involved in Christian missionary work internationally and with refugees in the Nashville area, according to a story in The Tennessean.
However, top Republicans, including the speakers of the State House and Senate, quickly announced their disapproval with the governor’s decision.
The disagreement marks the most consequential conflict between the state’s executive and legislative branches since Lee took office in January 2019.
In a rare joint statement, State House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, pointed to the state’s pending lawsuit against the federal government about refugee resettlement.
“Our opinion has not changed on this issue since legal action was taken,” the speakers said in a joint published statement, citing the Legislature’s previous support of Tennessee bringing the lawsuit. “Our personal preference would have been to exercise the option to hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state. However, the federal order makes this the sole decision of the Governor, and he has made his call.”
Through a Sept. 26, 2019, executive order by President Trump, the Secretary of State and secretary of Health and Human Services were given 90 days to develop a process to determine which state and local governments have given written consent to accept refugees.
The total number of displaced people in the world has now surpassed 70 million people. The total includes nearly 26 million refugees who have been forced to leave their country due to a fear of persecution, war, famine, floods, disease or some combination of the above.
Unlike in years past, state and local governments now have to declare their willingness to participate in the federal resettlement program in writing.