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Proposed Legislation in Tennessee Would Change Process for How Refugees Are Resettled

Stephen Jerkins

 Two Republican lawmakers want to give the legislature the power to decide whether refugees should be allowed to resettle in Tennessee.

The bill, filed by Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, and Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, is the latest in a contentious debate between the legislature and Gov. Bill Lee.

The new proposal would create a two-step process. First, local governments would have to weigh in.


“I feel like local governments and the people — the local people — should have some say on whether they want refugees in their communities or not,” Hensley told WPLN.

The legislation would require two-thirds of a city council or county commission to agree to resettle refugees.

Then, the state legislature would ultimately decide, also requiring a two-third majority.

“I am compassionate. I think most members of the General Assembly are compassionate and want to help people,” Hensley said. “But we want to look out for our citizens and our constituents first.”

The governor’s office declined to comment, even though Hensley’s bill would undermine his authority.

Lee last month consented to statewide resettlements for one more year, calling it “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,” Leewrote in a letter to legislative leaders.

The decision received pushback from top Republicans — many of whom supported a lawsuit against the federal government in 2016 to stop refugee resettlements.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton told WPLN in a statement Friday he is reviewing closely the refugee issue.

“It has been brought to my attention that those who are resettled are immediately issued social security numbers, which makes them automatically eligible for public assistance without having to identify as refugees,” Sexton said. “This creates uncertainty about the types of services they are receiving, as well as costs associated with these services.”

Sexton said he is working with House members to “pursue legal opportunities, possible legislation, and other alternatives” to address concerns with the issue.

Meanwhile, Adam Kleinheider, the communications director of Senate Speaker Randy McNally, said the top leader is reviewing the new proposal with legal counsel.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.
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