Lawmaker Urges Suspension of Syrian Refugees in Tennessee, Haslam Concurs


TN Representative Sheila Butt
  • TN Representative Sheila Butt

Thirty Syrian refugees came to Tennessee last year and eight of them landed in Memphis, according to the Tennessee Office for Refugees.

President Barack Obama wants to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees into the U.S. Over the next year. But in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, states are proclaiming those refugees aren’t welcome in their borders. Obama called this refusal a “betrayal of our values.”

The Tennessean reported Monday that Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, wants Tennessee the join those other states. A letter from Butt to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam was leaked on Scribd today.

A few hours later, Haslam issued a statement saying he was asking the federal government to suspend Syrian refugee placements in Tennessee.

“We are currently working to get specifics from the U.S. Department of State on the status of any Syrian refugees currently slated to come to Tennesse," Haslam said. "While screening, acceptance and placement is legally under the authority of the federal government, they have said in the past they would be open to cooperating with receiving states. Today I’m asking the federal government to suspend placements in Tennessee until states can become more of a partner in the vetting process.”

In the letter from Butt, she asks Haslam to “suspend all efforts to settle any Syrian refugees in Tennessee, through any agencies, until the U.S. Department of Homeland Security completes a full review of security clearances and procedures.”

For context behind the move, Butt points to the "violation and the loss" still felt in the state after the Paris attacks and the attack on a military recruiting office in Chattanooga earlier this year.

Tennessee state Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, said this in statement Monday afternoon: 

"We should offer safe sanctuary because we can, and taking several dozen displaced families is the least we can do," Sen. Harris said. "We should step up when called, because that's what the good guys do during these days of crises, and we should not turn a cold shoulder, because we understand that the refugees will head into the arms whoever offers help first, including the bad guys and those who might seek to exploit these families."

Blogs and Facebook posts have swirled after the Friday attacks in Paris noting that “thousands” of Syrian refugees were already arriving en masse across the country. Newspapers are moving to report real figures. 

In Tennessee, the number of Syrian refugees admitted here last year is 30, according to the Tennessee Office for Refugees. The office is a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc., which administers the federal Office of Refugees Resettlement for Tennessee. A spokesman for that office confirmed Monday evening that eight of those Syrian refugees have been settled in Memphis. 

Data from the office shows that the 30 Syrian refugees came to Tennessee from October 2014 through September 2015. Two of them came in July, four in August, and six in September, in an apparent ramp-up after refugees flooded out of Syria.

In the same time period, 186 refugees were settled in Memphis, though the data does break down the nationalities of those refugees here.

However, the nationalities of the refugees settled in Tennessee in the last year have been from Afghanistan, Cuba, Palestine, Somalia, Ukraine, and more.  

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