State of Tennessee Files Constitutional Challenge to Refugee Resettlement Program

Syrian refugee Morad Alteibawi, left, talks to his 4-year-old daughter, Roma, as his wife Ola Alteibawi listens to United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power speaks at Seton Hall University, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in South Orange, N.J. Power said the president's foreign policy has successfully engaged foes and galvanized allies to …
AP/Julio Cortez

The Thomas More Law Center filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Tennessee General Assembly and the State of Tennessee in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee on Monday challenging the federal refugee resettlement program for violating the state’s sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit places Tennessee at the center of the national debate concerning the operation of the federal refugee resettlement program.

President Trump will be holding a rally in Nashville on Wednesday to garner public support for his agenda. His revised Executive Order 13780 temporarily halting the federal refugee resettlement program and temporarily banning travel from six Middle Eastern countries goes into effect on Thursday.

As a national non-profit public interest law firm, the Thomas More Law Center, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan will represent Tennessee without charge.

In April 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly passed SJR 467 by overwhelming majorities authorizing the filing of a lawsuit to address the federal government’s commandeering of state funds to continue the refugee resettlement program in Tennessee. In 2007, the state of Tennessee officially withdrew from the federal program but the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement unilaterally designated Catholic Charities of Tennessee to force continued use of state funds to resettle refugees in the state.

The federal government is prohibited from forcing states to support federal programs with state revenues. This issue of federal funding for the new, soon-to-be created federal program, was addressed by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, the chief sponsor of the Refugee Act of 1980, the enabling legislation, on the Senate floor prior to its passage:

“… the committee was mindful of the deep concern of many State and local agencies that Federal assistance authorized under these programs should be for a reasonable period of time – to assure that local communities will not be taxed for a program they did not initiate.”

The Refugee Act specified that 100 percent of each state’s cost of Medicaid and cash welfare benefits provided to each resettled refugee during their first 36 months in the United State would be reimbursed to each state by the federal government. However, within five years of having created the federal program, Congress failed to appropriate sufficient funding and instead, costs of the federal program began shifting to state governments.

Within ten years of passing the Refugee Act, the federal government eliminated all reimbursement of state costs, a huge financial cost to the states that was, in effect, yet another unfunded federal mandate.

The cost shifting to state governments has been documented in federal reports. For example, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2010, undertook a review of the refugee admissions program taking particular note of the costs associated with education and healthcare for refugees that were being passed onto state and local governments.

The Superintendent for Fort Wayne (Indiana) Community Schools confirmed that the cost of educating refugee students “regularly diverted [funds] from other programs.” The Fort Wayne-Allen County Commissioner of Health also testified to the fact that “[i]ncreasingly the costs of [HIV/AIDS] tests are being dropped on the laps of local and state governments” as well as the expensive life-long treatment for the high incidence of hepatitis B she accidentally discovered among the resettled Burmese. “…another significant cost the local community will be forced to bear.”

The lawsuit seeks to define Tennessee’s rights in light of the forced expenditure of state funds in support of a federal program from which the state has formally withdrawn.

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris led the passage of SJR467 and described the suit as seeking declaratory relief in that it, “… offers a unique mechanism by which advocates may seek to remedy ongoing violations of statutory or constitutional law. Sometimes it’s cast in the nature of a friendly lawsuit to bring clarity to an otherwise cloudy situation.”

State Sen. John Stevens and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver will serve as the named plaintiffs representing the Tennessee General Assembly and the State of Tennessee.


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