NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Gov. Bill Lee announced his consent to initial refugee resettlement in the state Wednesday.
A refugee is a person who has fled their country of origin specifically because of past persecution or a fear of future persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. A refugee does not include a person who has left their home country solely to seek a more prosperous life here.
In letters to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and state Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, Lee acknowledged President Donald Trump’s strengthening of vetting refugees and cooperation with the federal government as contributing factors to his 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, particularly those suffering religious persecution,” Lee said. “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.”
Trump signed Executive Order 13888 on Sept. 26. The order gives state and local governments greater involvement in the process of determining the placement or resettlement of refugees in their jurisdictions.
Lee said resettlement will be coordinated with the Trump administration and local nonprofits.
“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,” Lee said.
Lee acknowledged the executive order could be overturned by future presidents and that his consent to allowing refugees will be evaluated again in a year.
Tennessee’s Republican-led Legislature sued in 2017 to challenge the federal refugee resettlement program. The lawsuit has failed at the district and appellate court level. Litigation is ongoing.
McNally and Sexton said in a joint statement Wednesday that suit would continue.
“Both our nation and the state of Tennessee have been extremely welcoming to immigrants throughout modern history,” the statement said. “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.”
“President Trump’s Executive Order is certainly a step in the right direction while that litigation is pending,” Lee said. “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.”
Once refugees have resettled, they have the right to move anywhere in the United States.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs supported the decision.
“I have found, overwhelmingly, the people in this program come here to be contributors to society, to breathe the air of the greatest nation on the planet as free men and women,” Jacobs said. “Some of them have already been in service to our nation by working with our military in places like Iraq and Syria.”
A news release from the mayor’s office pointed to the success of Yassin Terou, who relocated to Knoxville from Syria in 2011 but spoke no English and could find no work.
He began selling homemade falafel sandwiches and juices at the local mosque. He would sell out every week, making no money, but happy to be working. With the help of Nadeem Saddiqi, an imam at the mosque and a Knoxville native, he found a restaurant space downtown and Yassin’s Falafel House was born. Yassin’s gained national recognition being named Reader’s Digest’s Nicest Place in America in October 2018.
“We could all learn something from Yassin’s motto: welcome all sizes, all colors, all ages, all sexes, all cultures, all religions, all types, all beliefs, all people,” Jacob said: “Yassin is a perfect example of how communities like ours can benefit from supporting refugee resettlement and serving as a beacon for the American dream. I strongly agree with Governor Lee’s decision and thank him for his leadership on this issue.”