A Tennessee House committee advanced two anti-refugee bills Thursday, that one refugee rights group calls hateful and untimely as the state grapples with a global pandemic and civil unrest.
The first bill, HB 1929, sponsored primarily by Rep. Ron Gant (R-Rossville), seeks to prohibit the governor from requiring the state to consent to refugee resettlement, unless authorized by a joint resolution of the general assembly. Gant said the legislation is designed “only to encourage a dialogue between our members and Governor [Bill] Lee so we can continue to determine the cost and any potential safety issues with the refugee resettlement program.”
The legislation is not about “whether you’re for or against refugees coming to Tennessee,” Gant said, but instead about who should appropriate the money for the resettlement program.
Gant said the federal government shifted resettlement costs to states after the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, creating an “unconstitutional bypass of the Tennessee General Assembly’s exclusive power to appropriate public money.” This is the reason the general assembly filed a lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement in 2017, which is still ongoing.
“While we can be compassionate about those being persecuted, we must also ensure that we are effectively meeting the needs of Tennesseans first,” Gant said. “Our state has always been welcoming to countless generations of individuals who have used the legal process to relocate here. As the legislature, it is our responsibility to appropriate money, and respectfully, not our governor’s.” Gant added that given the current economic situation, that the bill is “crucial now more than ever, as we deal with our budget and taking care of Tennesseans first.”
Rep. Harold Love Jr. (D-Nashville) raised the question of how much money those resettled in Tennessee contribute to the sales tax base here. Gant said he has no data on that, but “I would be welcome to seeing those numbers.”
“Oftentimes, what happens is as we talk about money being expended, we never talk about money received,” Love said. “We focus on what goes out and not comes in.” Love said there are “possibly a good number of refugees that have settled here who are engaging in work that may even contribute to Tennessee being a great state.”
Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville) echoed Love, saying he “strongly feels that a lot of the refugees here in Tennessee are contributing in a very positive economic way to this state.” The bill passed with a voice vote, in which the ayes prevailed. Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville) and Rep. Bill Beck (D-Nashville) requested their no votes be noted.
The second bill, HB 1578, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Griffey, would require the state and local governments to refuse to consent to receive any refugees for purposes of resettlement. Under the bill, a local government can consent to resettlement by adoption of a resolution or ordinance gaining at least two-thirds vote. However, both houses of the general assembly would still be required to okay that decision before it can go into effect.
“If it’s issues that are going to impact the local community, I think the local community ought to be able to have a say so in the decisions that impact their communities,” Griffey said.
Beck, who is opposed to the legislation, said he is “proud” of the refugee resettlement program and that Tennessee should stay “welcoming and honoring.”
“These are people who, for the most part, have aided the United States overseas and we should look to reward those people,” Beck said. The committee voted 5-2 in favor of the bill, with Staples and Beck again voting no.
Representatives with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) opposed the advancement of the bills, calling them “hateful” and “divisive.”
Judith Clerjeune, policy and legislative affairs manager of TIRRC, said Tennessee legislators are “wasting time and resources sowing further division instead of working to find a real solution for our families and communities.”
“Tennesseans are hurting deeply, and our lawmakers need to be focused on passing policies that ensure we all have access to healthcare and economic relief to weather this crisis, that black and brown communities can be safe from police violence, and that all workers have the protections they need to provide for their families while keeping themselves and their communities safe,” Clerjeune said. “We need bold leadership, not fruitless attacks on refugees, to make sure all Tennesseans can pull through these tough times together.”