Certain political actors in Tennessee have vociferously fought against welcoming refugees. In March 2018, a U.S. district judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Thomas More Law Center—on behalf of the Tennessee General Assembly—contending that the refugee resettlement program violated the Spending Clause of the Tenth Amendment by imposing refugees’ Medicaid costs onto the state.

Most states are enrolled in a federally funded, state-administered refugee resettlement program in which the state government administers benefits but is reimbursed for the full costs of their refugee cash assistance (RCA) and refugee medical assistance (RMA) programs. Nonetheless, some states have been less than willing to accept this mutually beneficial bargain.

In 2008, Tennessee’s state government withdrew from the federal refugee resettlement program, which is run by the Division of Refugee Assistance in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR). Since then, the state has accepted refugees through the so-called  Wilson-Fish (WF) program. WF programs use voluntary agencies and other nonprofits to act as “state designees” in order to resettle refugees. This means that organizations like Catholic Charities of Tennessee provide the resources necessary to resettle refugees—while being governed and funded by the federal government, under the purview of the ORR. The state’s decision to withdraw from direct collaboration with ORR in resettlement activities does not prevent refugees from being resettled in Tennessee.

The Tennessee lawsuit claimed that “the federal refugee resettlement program commandeers Tennessee’s funds through Medicaid” and “commandeers other state funds and instrumentalities through health and welfare programs and public schooling.”

The judge dismissed the claim as “speculative” and found no evidence that refugee resettlement “represents a departure from the understanding pursuant to which Tennessee has accepted Federal Medicaid funds for over forty years—that it must cover lawfully present aliens, including refugees, under its Medicaid program.”

The failed lawsuit gained support among some Tennessee legislators but did not receive the backing of either the state’s Republican governor or attorney general. In declining to pursue the lawsuit themselves, the Tennessee attorney general also “found little evidence that the feds have refused to provide information, engage in conversation or declined to consider the state’s input into the process,” according to The Tennessean newspaper. The attorney general instead encouraged legislators to re-engage with Catholic Charities of Tennessee and the federal government and gather more information.

The failed lawsuit ultimately ignores the state’s commitments to all its residents in service of anti-refugee sentiments. The Tennessee lawsuit also attempts to distort and imperil the adjustment costs necessary to resettle refugees. Those worried about the fiscal costs of increasing numbers of refugees stand on scant empirical evidence while overlooking Tennessee’s role in the American humanitarian project of refugee resettlement. Nevertheless, the most recent data on refugee resettlement in Tennessee demonstrates neither a disproportionate allotment nor an increasing inflow of refugees.  

At the state level, refugee resettlements in the current fiscal year range from 849 resettled people in Ohio to none in Wyoming, Hawaii, and various U.S. territories.Compared to last year—when Tennessee accepted the 18th most refugees—the state’s refugee admissions have seen both relative and absolute declines. The 171 refugees resettled in Tennessee during FY 2018 account for just a fraction of the 797 refugees welcomed at the halfway point of the last fiscal year. This ensures that Tennessee will fall significantly short of Catholic Charities of Tennessee’s goal of 690 resettled refugees. The other voluntary agency in Tennessee, World Relief, recently announced the closing of its Nashville office. World Relief Nashville is 1 of 74 refugee resettlement offices across the country that will close in response to the administration’s shriveling of refugee admissions.

Despite being the 17th most populous state, Tennessee has resettled the 25th fewest refugees, putting “The Volunteer State” below less populous states like Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Oregon and Washington. While Tennessee has not received a complete ban on accepting new refugees, the plaintiff’s lawyers in the Tennessee lawsuit can take solace in knowing that national resettlement totals have hit historic lows. The plummeting of refugee inflows harms both prospective refugees and American communities in need of revitalization.

Overall, Tennessee role in U.S. refugee resettlement is dwarfed by that of larger states like California and Texas. Of the 933,648 refugees resettled since FY 2002 only 18,427 have been resettled in Tennessee. This puts the state in 19th place and 5 spots behind Kentucky—Tennessee’s less populated neighbor to the north. Tennessee’s share of refugees accounts for slightly under 2 percent of total inflows for the period, a proportion that has remained fairly constant over time and into the current fiscal year.

In fact, Tennessee’s share of refugees resettled had been lower prior to the state’s withdrawal from ORR’s state administered resettlement program. This means that under the Obama and Trump administrations, Tennessee has enjoyed a larger share of America’s industrious refugee population. Refugee fear-mongering and anti-immigrant rhetoric often fail to keep pace with reality.

Such distortions threaten evidence-based policymaking and lead to overreactions like the failed Tennessee lawsuit.

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