Resolution says 'no' to refugees coming to Washington County

Robert Houk • Mar 6, 2020 at 8:00 AM

The Washington County Health, Education and Welfare Committee voted Thursday to move a resolution to the County Commission on March 23 that sends a message to Gov. Bill Lee: Washington County does not want refugees resettled here.

Danny Edens, the chairman of the committee, said the measure does not seek to change state or federal law on refugees, but would voice the county’s “opinion” to the governor and state legislative leaders “that we do not accept refugees.”

The resolution comes after state Republican Executive Committeewoman Anita Hodges Taylor asked Washington County to declare it “does not consent” to a decree by the governor for Tennessee to continue to accepting political refugees from other countries. Taylor said the practice has become an “alarming” burden on state and local taxpayers.

“I am here to represent people who believe our county doesn’t need to accept more refugees,” she said.

Taylor told commissioners last month that a number of counties are considering similar Republican-backed resolutions, which have been approved by Bedford, Dyer and Franklin counties.

Commissioner Suzy Williams said while it was important to point out that refugees are not the same as other immigrants, she is concerned that refugees are being prioritized above “our local citizens” when it comes to receiving public assistance for housing, food and health care needs.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Jodi Jones —  who joined Commissioner Greg Matherly in voting “no” on the resolution — told her colleagues it might be prudent for the county to wait for the outcome of a court injunction on the federal refugee law before proceeding on the issue.

“I feel we should be very thoughtful about the message we send to our governor,” she said.

Tennessee lawmakers have expressed their displeasure with a decision Lee made in December for Tennessee to keep accepting refugees. The Republican-controlled General Assembly is pushing passage of a resolution criticizing the governor’s actions as as violation of the separation of powers.

GOP leaders are involved in litigation claiming the federal refugee resettlement program improperly forces the state to spend money on additional public services.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2017. A district court dismissed it a year later, ruling it was speculative for Tennessee to argue it might lose $7 billion annually in federal money if it refuses to spend state money on refugee services through TennCare.

The case has since been rejected by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last month, Washington County commissioners heard from Drocella Mugorewera, the executive director of the Knoxville-based Bridge Refugee Services Inc., which is handling refugee resettlement in the region. She said Tennessee is responsible for resettling nearly 2% of the refugees allowed into this country annually, and most are located in the Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis areas.

In the past 12 years, 19 refugees have been placed in Washington County. Those refugees were placed with family members living in the county. That number includes four who have been placed in Washington County since 2012.

Mugorewera said it takes an average of two years for a refugees to go through the vetting process. She said most are fleeing sex trafficking and religious persecution, or have “been targeted” after helping the United States in Afghanistan and other combat zones. 

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