Tennessee Consents to Refugees Resettlement

On December 18, Tennessee Republican Governor Bill Lee gave his state’s consent to refugees resettlement. His very short letter thanked  Secretary of State Michael Pompeo “for consulting with the states to ensure this process [of resettlement] is successful. We feel strongly that this consultation is appropriate and that the federal government would be overstepping by requiring states to participate in this program.”[1]

Tennessee Controversy Over the Decision

Conscious of the state’s existing political controversy over refugees, the Governor simultaneously sent a lengthy letter to the state’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and Republican Speaker of its House of Representatives, Cameron Sexton.[2]

This letter emphasized the Governor’s belief that “President Trump has strengthened our national security while enhancing our state’s ability to cooperate and consult with his Administration in the process of resettling refugees who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution. Public safety is of the utmost importance and the Trump Administration has strengthened the vetting process of those entering the U.S. through heightened screenings around terrorism, violent crime, fraud, and public health concerns. Border security, reducing illegal immigration, and upholding the rule of law are critical, and so it is important to note that each and every refugee that might potentially be resettled in Tennessee under the President’s Executive Order will have been individually approved by the Trump Administration for legal immigrant status.” This letter continued with the following comments:

  • “Resettlement will be facilitated by the Trump Administration and non-profit organizations with extensive experience in this area. The refugee population in Tennessee is small, and I believe our consent to cooperate and consult with the Trump Administration to provide a safe harbor for those who are fleeing religious persecution and violent conflict is the right decision. 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, and particularly those suffering religious persecution. My commitment to these ideals is based on my faith, personally visiting refugee camps on multiple continents, and my years of experience ministering to refugees here in Tennessee.”
  • “I am aware that litigation is pending asserting that the federal government is required by statute to consult with states regarding refugee resettlement, and I support this effort. President Trump’s Executive Order is certainly a step in the right direction while that litigation is pending, but I would note that Executive Orders are not necessarily binding on future presidents. So, while I am willing to trust and work with President Trump on the refugee issue, I have consulted with appropriate legal authority, and I am confident that our current work with this President 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.”
  • “Our consent comes with a shared responsibility to both the character and livelihood of our state as a lawful and thriving place for all our citizens. My consent is valid initially for one year, and we will work closely with President Trump, you, and your colleagues to ensure this process is effective as we work together with the Trump Administration to facilitate and carefully monitor continued refugee resettlement for the next year.”

The state’s Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker immediately issued a joint statement saying their “personal preference would have been to exercise the option to hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state.”

Later that same day the Governor in a meeting with reporters said, “I certainly know there’s disagreement on this subject but there’s disagreement around most subjects. You agree to disagree and move forward. But I think it’s the right decision and we’re moving forward on it.”

The Governor’s decision did find support from others in the state. “Holly Johnson, who coordinates the Tennessee Office for Refugees within the Catholic Charities, said employers are ‘chasing down resettlement agencies because they know refugees work hard, they show up, they’ll work overtime, they call when they’re out,’ particularly during Tennessee’s time of low unemployment.” In addition, four large local governments said they wanted to keep accepting refugees: Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Shelby County, which includes Memphis.”


Tennessee now joins other states that have consented to refugees resettlement with positive comments on the previous contributions of refugees who had resettled in their states: Utah, North Dakota, Minnesota, Arizona, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Moreover, to date no state has been reported to have not consented to such resettlements,[3]


[1]  Office of Tenn. Governor, Gov. Lee Announces Decision on Refugee Resettlement (Dec. 18, 2019); Letter, Governor Lee to Secretary Pompeo (Dec. 18, 2019); Letter, Governor Lee to McNally and Sexton (Dec. 18, 2019); Assoc. Press, Tennessee Governor Says State Will Keep Resettling Refugees, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2019); Jacobson, Gov. Lee decides Tennessee will continue accepting refugees, News Channel3 (Dec. 19, 2019); Mattise (AP), Daughter hoping to see father again praises gov’s decision, Wash. Post (Dec. 19, 2019).

[2]  Letter, Governor Lee to McNally and Sexton (Dec. 18, 2019).

[3]  See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. Sets 18,000 Quota for New Refugee Admissions to U.S. for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 4, 2019; U.S. Senators Oppose U.S.Reduction in Refugee Admissions for Fiscal 2020 (Nov. 11, 2019);Latest U.S. Struggle Over Refugees (Dec. 11, 2019); Minnesota and Minneapolis Say “Yes” to Refugees (Dec. 14, 2019); Updates on States’ Consents to Refugee Resettlement (Dec. 16, 2019).