Tennessee governor says state will continue accepting refugees

Tennessee will continue to allow the resettlement of refugees in the state, its Republican governor said this week.

Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday sent a letter of consent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announcing the decision. The letter comes in response to an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in September that gave state and localities the decision to allow refugees to resettle in their communities.

“The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution,” Lee said in a statement. “My administration has worked extensively to determine the best outcome for Tennessee, and I will consent to working with President Trump and his administration to responsibly resettle refugees.”

The move was hailed by local immigrant and refugee groups, including the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which has advocated for immigrant rights in the state since 2003.

“For over 30 years, Tennesseans have lived up to our most sacred ideals by welcoming those who are seeking safety through supporting the resettlement of refugees,” said Judith Clerjeune, the group’s spokesperson. “Communities across the state are ready and willing to accept more refugees.”

In a joint statement, state Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, both Republicans, pushed back, pointing to the state’s pending lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement. Still, they noted it was Lee’s “sole decision.”

“Our opinion has not changed on this issue since legal action was taken, and our personal preference would have been to exercise the option to hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state,” the joint statement read. “However, the federal order makes this the sole decision of the Governor, and he has made his call.”

Since Trump issued his order on September 26, more than 20 other states have opted to continue accepting refugees, according to the State Department. Additionally, 12 municipalities have also written to the department about resettlement. Under Trump’s order, refugees won’t be resettled in states and localities that have not provided written consent. The order set a 90-day deadline for consent letters to be sent to Pompeo.

“If the Secretary of State intends to provide for the resettlement of refugees in a State or locality that has not provided consent, then the Secretary shall notify the President of such decision, along with the reasons for the decision, before proceeding,” the executive order said.

In announcing the refugee resettlement consent policy in September, the Trump administration announced that only 18,000 refugees would be allowed to settle in the United States in fiscal year 2020, a historic low and down from the 30,000 allowed in 2019.