Tennessee State Legislators Ready to Rebel Against Federal Government Refugee Resettlement

Refugees and migrants wait for free blankets and raincoats before disembarking from a gove
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Several Tennessee state legislators appear ready to rebel against the implementation of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program after hearing testimony from Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons that the Obama administration has failed to comply with the Refugee Act of 1980’s statutory requirement to consult with the state prior to the placement of refugees there.

“My office is preparing a formal request in a letter to the Tennessee Attorney General that will go out later today asking him to pursue remedies for what is clearly a violation of the federal statutes by the federal government—in this case the Refugee Act of 1980,” State Senator Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield) tells Breitbart News.

Roberts was one of several members of the Tennessee General Assembly who participated in a a joint meeting of the Senate State and Local Government Committee and the House State Government Committee in Nashville who heard the startling testimony from Gibbons.

“Under federal law, the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration are required to consult on a regular basis not less than quarterly, with state and local governments, and private non-profit voluntary agencies, concerning the sponsorship process and, importantly, the intended distribution of refugees among the states and location before the placement in those states and localities,” Gibbons testified.

“So far, to this point, we feel there has not been adequate compliance with this mandate under federal law,” he added.

“To our knowledge, there has been no regular consultation with the executive branch in [Tennessee] state government regarding the resettlement and placement of refugees within our state,” Gibbons stated.

Senator Roberts asked Gibbons if the federal government had given the state of Tennessee a reason why they are not fulfilling their statutory obligation to consult with the state.

“No sir,” Gibbons responded.

“There is no excuse. It’s one of those statutory requirements that has been there that was not given a lot of attention until recent developments,” he continued.

“Now, hopefully, federal government officials are going to take that obligation seriously,” Gibbons added.

“Mr. Chairman, I would enjoy hearing from the [Tennessee] Attorney General’s office as to what their thoughts are on the federal government’s failure to follow this statute and what remedies they might think are available to the state of Tennessee,” Roberts then said to committee chairman, State Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston).

Chairman Yager readily agreed to Roberts’s request.

The consultation clause of the Refugee Act of 1980 says:

The Director [of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services], (either with the Coordinator [for Refugee Affairs]), shall consult regularly with State and local governments an d private nonprofit voluntary agencies concerning the sponsorship process and the intended distribution of refugees among the States and localities.

Breitbart News has obtained the text of Roberts’ letter to Tennessee Attorney General Slatery, which reads in part:

In yesterday’s Joint Meeting of Senate State and Local Government Committee and House State Government on the Syrian refugee resettlement program, Commissioner Gibbons testified that the federal government is failing to consult with the State of Tennessee per federal regulation.

As we’ve learned from Texas’ failed attempt to compel the federal government to consult, I hold little hope that Tennessee – a Wilson-Fish state which has opted out of the refugee resettlement program – can compel the federal government to consult with us.

Therefore, I believe it is in the best interest of the State of Tennessee to mount a constitutional challenge to the U.S. refugee resettlement program.

As explained in the hearing yesterday, the opinion issued by your office did not opine on the Tenth Amendment issues which, as I understand it, are the only means for a Wilson-Fish state to pursue to resolve the issues confronted by the state with regard to the federal refugee resettlement program.

I believe we have a duty to explore all meritorious options. The Thomas More Law Center has prepared a constitutional challenge and is willing, pro bono, to assist or represent the State of Tennessee in the lawsuit should Governor Haslam agree to serve as plaintiff. I strongly urge you to pursue this option.

On Tuesday, a federal judge rejected a request from the State of Texas to grant a temporary restraining order to halt the settlement of Syrian refugees in the state.

As Breitbart News has reported previously, the Thomas More Law Center, a public interest law firm with a record of legal successes, has offered to represent any of the 12 Wilson-Fish alternative program states in a constitutional challenge to the operation of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in their states. To date, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, has not indicated a willingness to act as a plaintiff in such a case, but sources tell Breitbart News he has also not yet rejected that option.

Several state legislators may be considering a bill to take back the program to state control, putting Tennessee in the same category of program participants as Texas and Indiana, which, as Breitbart News reported previously, have been impotent to stop further refugee settlement.

Previously, Associate Attorney General Bill Young testified before the committee about Tennessee Attorney General Slatery’s November 30 opinion on the state’s ability to reject refugees, which reads, in part:

Question 1

May the legislative branch or the executive branch of the State of Tennessee refuse to accept for resettlement within the State individuals whom the federal government has processed and admitted to the United States as refugees?

Opinion 1

No. Such a refusal would impinge on and conflict with the federal government’s authority to regulate the admission of aliens to the United States and thus would violate the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Young conceded that opinion, which concluded the Supremacy Clause prohibited the state from preventing the entry of refugees, was a narrowly focused response to the specific question posed to the Attorney General by a Democratic member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Several state legislators want to know the answer to a broader question; not whether the state can prohibit refugees who have been settled in other states from physically entering the state of Tennessee, but whether the federal government can compel the state of Tennessee to pay some of the services provided to refugees settled here under the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program as currently administered by the Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees.

In 2008, then- Governor Phil Bredesen withdrew the state of Tennessee from the administration of the Refugee program. Subsequent to that withdrawal, citing the statutorily questionable 1995 Department of Health and Human Services regulation that established the Wilson-Fish alternative program for states that withdraw from the program, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement named Catholic Charities of Tennesseee as the voluntary agency (VOLAG) to administer the program in the Volunteer State.

At the time of the state’s withdrawal, one state employee on a half time basis administered the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, sources tell Breitbart News

After the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement selected Catholic Charities to run the program in the state of Tennessee, it established a new unit, confusingly named the Tennessee Office for Refugees (perhaps to suggest it is a state agency, which it is not), which has grown in size since 2008 to a ten person office run by its director, Holly Johnson, one of several witnesses who testified before the committee Wednesday.

Young indicated the Attorney General’s office would be happy to provide further opinions on any additional, broader questions, posed by other members of the state legislature.

Senator Roberts was not the only state legislator to question the operation of the refugee resettlement program in the state of Tennessee.

When Johnson testified, Chairman Yager asked her why he had not received the quarterly reports on the program required by a state law passed in 2011, the “Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act.”

Under that law, the Tennessee Office for Refugees has several reporting requirements:

 4-38-103. Duties of Tennessee office for refugees.

The Tennessee office for refugees shall:

(1) Provide at least a written quarterly report to representatives of local governments to plan and coordinate the appropriate placement of refugees in advance of the refugees’ arrival, and appear before the local government to provide additional information at the request of the local government. Specifically, the local government may request reporting of information related to the factors of absorptive capacity as stated in § 4-38-102.

(2) Ensure that representatives of local resettlement agencies, local community service agencies, and other publicly-funded or tax-exempt agencies that serve refugees in this state shall upon request meet with representatives of local governments to plan and coordinate the appropriate placement of refugees in the host community in advance of the refugees’ arrival;

(3) Execute a letter of agreement with each agency providing refugee resettlement services in this state. The letter of agreement shall require the parties to mutually consult and prepare a plan for the initial placement of refugees in a host community and set forth the continuing process of consultation between the parties. The provisions of the letter of agreement shall be consistent with federal law regulating the resettlement of refugees;

(4) At least quarterly transmit to the chairs of the state government committee of the house of representatives and state and local government committee of the senate, and to the chair of the budget committee of either the city council or the county legislative body regulating the host community copies of:

(A) The letters of agreement;

(B) Any initial refugee placement plans prepared pursuant to letters of agreement; and

(C) Any communications received and responded to pursuant to subdivision (5), including how or to the extent any issue regarding the concerns of host communities and representatives of local governments was resolved; and

(5) Ensure that residents of host communities and representatives of local governments are aware that any and all concerns regarding local refugee resettlement activities in any host community shall be filed with the Tennessee office for refugees and further that the Tennessee office for refugees shall respond timely in writing to all such communications.

(emphasis added)

Johnson responded that she had sent the quarterly reports as required by state law, and would provide copies to the chairman.

The issue first became public when State Senator Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville), author of the law, stated publicly three weeks earlier he had never received a report. No member of either committee present at yesterday’s joint meeting on refugee resettlement recalled ever receiving such a report.

“I’ve heard from many legislators that they HAVE received the reports,” Johnson told Breitbart News after the hearing.

“I will request a read receipt on the future, of course, but I’m also wondering why nobody who didn’t receive these important reports contacted me to let me know they hadn’t received them until 4 years later,” Johnson added.

Breitbart News contacted Senator Yager, chairman of the Senate Senate State and Local Government Committee since 2011, and former Rep. Ryan Haynes, chairman of the House State Government Committee in 2013 and 2014, and now State GOP chairman, about why they never contacted Johnson during this 4 year period, but did not receive a response.

“Chairman Yager stated his office never received quarterly reports,” Rep. Bob Ramsey, chairman of the House State Government Committee, said in an email to Breitbart News.

Ramsey added that he has not received any of the required quarterly reports in the two years he’s served as chairman of the committee.

If the Tennessee Office for Refugees actually did send the illusory quarterly reports to the appropriate state legislators as required by law, they may not have been responsive to the requirements of the state law.

Breitbart News obtained a copy of what it believes is a 2013 quarterly report, and it contains no information concerning “any initial refugee placement plans prepared pursuant to letters of agreement,” as the law requires.

“Once each year (when the placement plans are done for the year), these are attached to the reports. You must have a copy of the report that wasn’t the one where they were attached,” Johnson tells Breitbart News.

“A liberal reading of the statute’s requirement for the initial refugee placement plan would be it is the proposed plan that is sent to Washington in advance of the start of the fiscal year,” one legal expert tells Breitbart News.

“A more restrictive reading of the statute would be it is a document that has never materialized since the only document that suggest a ‘placement plan’ would be the document listing ‘anticipated’ versus ‘actual arrivals’ that has no other information that explains the ‘plan’ for resettlement. Neither the intent nor spirit of the law which was to provide substantive information to a community and state officials as to what might be required for the proper placement of refugees. None of this information appears anywhere,” the expert concludes.

At the meeting Wednesday, State Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) expressed his displeasure to Johnson for her organization’s failure to respond to his multiple requests for information about its operation of the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Ragan said that he had sent a letter to the Tennessee Office for Refugees in March with fifteen specific questions requesting specific information from Johnson, but they she had failed to respond.

Johnson promised Rep. Ragan she would respond to that letter.

Johnson was also questioned about the costs of the program to the state of Tennessee, an issue at the core of a potential legal challenge to the Refugee Resettlement Program.

Citing a report requested by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee and prepared by the Legislature’s Fiscal Review staff in 2013, Johnson claimed the refugees brought in two times as much money to the state as they cost.

That report, however, has been thoroughly discredited, as Don Barnett of the Center for Immigration Studies first explained in 2014.

“Any sane person would question the assumptions of this study,” Barnett tells Breitbart News.

“I was surprised to hear the State Refugee Coordinator – who also happens to be an employee of the main private contractor running refugee resettlement in Tennessee – make claims about the economic success of refugees based upon the 2013 study of the cost to Tennessee of the federal refugee program,” Barnett adds.

“The study looked at only 2 programs with state costs – 1. Public schools , including English Language Learning (ELL) and 2. TennCare,” Barnett says.

“There are many other programs used by refugees for which Tennesseans pay using state taxes besides the above. To name a few programs ignored by the study: Cover Kids (SCHIP) State reimbursement for ER visits, ELL was not fully/properly accounted for, State Grants, Families First (TANF)- state taxpayer covers a small fraction of this,” Barnett adds.

“However, the biggest problem with the study was that it assumed that refugees use TennCare at the same rate as the average Tennessee citizen. This is absurd. The contractors themselves have documented placement rates as high as 59 percent into TennCare, which matches the national average for refugees in Medicaid,” Barnett notes.

“My representative, State Rep. Charles Sargent (R-Franklin), stated that the assumptions of the study were questionable at best,” Barnett concludes.

Many limited government conservatives in Tennessee believe that Governor Haslam may be too firmly entrenched in the establishment branch of the Republican Party to step up as a plaintiff to be represented by the Thomas More Law Center in a constitutional challenge to the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. As the political pressure to take that bold step mounts, however, Haslam has yet to rule that option out.


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