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Tennessee-bound migrants draw GOP backlash, but nonprofits say they're prepping welcome centers

Immigration policy is again prompting a dispute in Tennessee following news that some migrants would be moved into the state from New Orleans.
Julieta Martinelli
Immigration policy is again prompting a dispute in Tennessee following news that some migrants would be moved into the state from New Orleans.

The relocation of migrants in federal custody to Tennessee is setting off a conservative firestorm, with conflicting statements and few details.

Congressional Republicans joined with Gov. Bill Lee to blast what they’re describing as a White House decision to send “busloads” of immigration detainees into the state. They’re demanding that the federal government reverse its plans, and they issued statements stoking fears about immigrants.

“This is irresponsible and a threat to the safety of Tennesseans,” Lee wrote. “It’s not compassionate to perpetuate a problem that leads to more exploitation and trafficking.”

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti says he’s “exploring all options” about a potential response, and describes the move of migrants as lacking transparency and appropriate notice.

Tennessee Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty have since written to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to express concerns and ask questions about how many immigrants would be transported and what vetting procedures they’ve undergone.

Meanwhile, immigration advocates like the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition are preparing to help the new arrivals.

“Welcoming and hospitality is woven into the fabric of who Tennesseans are,” TIRRC Executive Director Lisa Sherman Luna said at a press conference Wednesday.

The group describes the migrants as asylum seekers who are on a legal path to reuniting with loved ones. Tennessee nonprofits and faith communities that were contacted by federal officials are currently preparing donations and volunteers to aid the migrants.

Sherman Luna says the coordinated response between government and local organizations is an important first step.

“What we know is that we have the capacity, the resources and the willingness to welcome,” Sherman Luna said. “[We] make a plea to our government officials, to Gov. Lee and others, that they allow us to do this important work and support people who are just trying to find safety and opportunity in our country.”

Criticism of Republican official “fearmongering” has also come from the Southern Christian Coalition, a group of highly vocal pastors.

“Their rhetoric serves no Christian agenda. It only serves their own political agenda. This isn’t what Jesus would do. Jesus calls on us to welcome the stranger,” wrote Rev. Brandon Berg, of Norris and Sinking Springs United Methodist churches.

The state-level sparring comes amid a rapidly developing national court battle. Tennessee is among 19 states fighting the White House’s attempt to end the special pandemic program “Title 42,” which allows the expulsion of migrants for public health reasons.

Tony Gonzalez, a reporter in Nashville since July 2011, covers city news, features inspiring people, and seeks out offbeat stories. He’s also an award-winning juggler and hot chicken advocate who lives in East Nashville with his wife, a professional bookbinder. During his time at The Tennessean newspaper, his investigative reporting and feature stories were honored in the state and nationally. Gonzalez grew up near Chicago and came to Nashville after three years reporting and editing at Virginia's smallest daily newspaper, The News Virginian.