Gov. Bill Lee says state will keep resettling refugees

Posted at 11:24 AM, Dec 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-18 23:43:02-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF/AP) — Republican Gov. Bill Lee says Tennessee won't stop resettling refugees under an option offered to states by President Donald Trump's administration.

In reaching the decision announced Wednesday, Lee said he considered his own experience helping Kurdish refugees and weighed it against the will of fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

“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,” said Lee. “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.”

GOP lawmakers previously sued the federal government over its refugee resettlement program and legislative leaders hoped Lee would take Trump up on his offer. So far, no state has said it plans to reject refugees.

Lt. Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton quickly expressed their disappointment in the governor's decision.

"Both our nation and the state of Tennessee have been extremely welcoming to immigrants throughout modern history. In 2016, the General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing the desire of our citizens to file a federal lawsuit to halt refugee resettlement in Tennessee," the Republican lawmakers said in a joint statement. "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. However, the federal order makes this the sole decision of the Governor, and he has made his call."

However, Republican State Senator Steven Dickerson announced his support in the decision.

"I applaud Governor Lee for making this decision as I have long believed that a diverse and welcoming Tennessee makes us a stronger Tennessee," Dickerson said.

More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Tennessee during the 2016 budget year. That number was 692 in 2018.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition responded to the announcement by applauding the governor's decision.

"We applaud Governor Lee in his decision to allow the life-saving work of refugee resettlement to continue in Tennessee," said Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director for TIRRC. "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. Communities across the state are ready and willing to accept more refugees. We thank Governor Lee for his moral clarity and leadership in making his decision today.”

"Refugee communities across Tennessee have played a powerful role in defending not only the resettlement program but the values and aspirations of this country," said TIRRC Policy Officer Judith Clerjeune. "We will continue to work with refugee leaders and partner agencies to advocate for a robust and generous resettlement program."