The Tennesee General Assembly is considering a joint resolution to direct the state’s attorney general to sue the federal government over the latter’s resettlement program for refugees. If the attorney general fails to do so, the bill provides that lawyers would be brought from outside to file the case. Despite concerns expressed by Gov. Bill Haslam (R) about the setting of precedents, the lawsuit would advance without his support.
The lawsuit is based on a claim that the state of Tennessee is being illegally forced by the federal government to fund the support of refugees that the state has not agreed to accept. Tennessee Republicans argue that the state should be able to veto any plans to send refugees to their state.
In testimony last week, state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R) said "We're dealing with federal coercion and commandeering of state resources." However, report to the state legislature contends that refugees contribute nearly twice in tax revenue that what they cost the state. Also, the director of the state’s Office for Refugees testified recently before the House State Government Subcommittee that the refugee resettlement program adds $15 million to the state's economy each year.
Since the terrorist attacks in France last year, more than half of state governors have expressed concern over the influx of refugees, especially from Syria where the war between dictator Bashr al Assad and Muslim extremists continues. Several state legislatures are considering bills to either block or stymy the Obama administration’s resettlement efforts.
The bill in Tennessee faces considerable obstacles: both the governor and the attorney general are opposed, while some Republicans are joining Democrats in opposing the bill. If Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery refuses to take the case, the Thomas More Law Center – a law firm based in Illinois -- has agreed to represent the state’s General Assembly free of charge. The Thomas More Law Center has been preparing for this sort of lawsuit for several months and has sought a plaintiff.
Other obstacles to the lawsuit include existing law granting broad authority to the federal government over immigration, which is based on a constitutional provision that Congress establish a "uniform Rule of Naturalization." Congress invoked that power in 1952 when it passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which gives authority to the president to decide on the number of refugees to admit. Other relevant laws include the 1980 Refugee Act, while the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the federal government has "broad, undoubted power over immigration and alien status" that preempts most state involvement in immigration.
Tennessee Republicans argue that the Obama administration in in violation of the Refugee Act for its failure to consult with the states over the distribution of refugees. They contend that Tennessee should be able to veto plans to send refugees to their state, or withhold state funds from being spent on refugees. Texas and Alabama are making similar claims in related lawsuits against the Obama administration.
The argument has not met with favor in court. This year, a federal court in Texas issued a ruling that the state cannot override the federal government's decisions about refugee resettlement. Once refugees are admitted to the U.S., they are free to live wherever they like; states cannot refuse their admission. Tennessee Attorney General Slatery agreed, saying that "such a refusal would impinge on and conflict with the federal government's authority to regulate the admission of aliens."
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