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Gov. Lee Says Tennessee Will Keep Doors Open to Refugees

Katie Riordan


Advocacy organizations praised Gov. Bill Lee's announcement Wednesday that Tennessee will continue to accept and resettle foreign refugees, while some lawmakers push to suspend the resettlement program. Lee's decision comes ahead of a Christmas-day deadline from the Trump Administration that would allow state officials to accept or reject new refugees.

In a letter to state lawmakers, Gov. Bill Lee said he will support the current resettlement process for an initial period of one year, adding that Tennessee is a “shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed.”

Lee attributed his decision, in part, to his Christian faith, along with visits to international refugee camps and “ministering” to refugees in the state.

According to theState Department, Lee is the first southern Republican governor to decide on refugee resettlement. His position differs with other ranking Republican lawmakers in Tennessee.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton favor a moratorium on accepting refugees. In a 2017 lawsuit, the GOP-controlled Tennessee legislature argued that the federal program violates state sovereignty. The case has been dismissed, but could be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Lee said his decision would have no effect on the lawsuit.  

“I am confident that our current work with this President [Trump] will not undermine the litigation seeking a more permanent statutory interpretation that would actually bind and require the federal government to consult with the states,” he wrote.  

P.J. Moore, director of the refugee resettlement agency World Relief in Memphis, says the governor’s announcement reflects the success of the programs. 

“The numbers show that [refugees] have a positive impact on our economy,” he says. “There’s been highlights of cultural and social influence that they positively have on our state.”

Moore noted that he had just returned from lunch at Global Cafe, a restaurant in Midtown Memphis that employs chefs from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

Under the Trump Administration, the number of refugees allowed in the U.S. has dropped significantly. Moore says new arrivals in Shelby County declined from about 250 to less than 50 over the last three years.

“Amidst the worst global humanitarian crisis, the worst global refugee crisis in the history of our world, we think that’s pretty inconsistent with our nation’s values and our community values,” Moore says.  

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said the county would be “honored” to welcome additional refugees as the program continues.