Some 1,500 refugees are resettled in Tennessee each year, and now state lawmakers want to know how much they cost.
The program to relocate persecuted people or those from war-torn nations is federally-funded, but Republicans are concerned refugees end up on TennCare or in special English classes, which are partially paid for by the state.
(See a state-by-state breakdown. Tennessee took 1,236 in 2012. Wyoming had 0.)
A newly-created legislative committee met for the first time Wednesday to investigate the indirect fiscal impact of refugee resettlements. They were given an unsatisfying answer: no one is keeping track.
In Tennessee, gatekeeping duties were outsourced to Catholic Charities in 2008 as a way to save money. Activist Don Barnett of Brentwood says the agency naturally wants to relocate more refugees.
“There is an obvious conflict of interest in Tennessee, which has meant less of a voice for Tennesseans in a process that directly affects them,” Barnett told state lawmakers Wednesday.
What Are We Really Talking About?
But cutting off resettlements wouldn’t necessarily save much money, argues Catholic Charities state director Holly Johnson. And she points to the potential lost benefits of refugees who start businesses. She suggests the attention to money may be a red herring.
“I feel like there’s something else going on that I’m not aware of,” she said after the hearing.
Stephen Fotopulos of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Committee was gaveled down for being out of order when he suggested the interest in resettlement costs was because many of the refugees come from Muslim nations in the Middle East and Africa.
The chairman of the new “Joint Government Operations Legislative Advisory Committee” is Judd Matheny (R-Tullahoma). He tried to keep the conversation focused on the fiscal impact of resettlement, but he has previously sponsored legislation aimed at Muslims, such as a bill to outlaw Islamic code.
Activists opposed to resettlements in Tennessee packed the legislative hearing room. They represent some of the same conservative groups that oppose the building of mosques and teaching about Islam.
However, asked if they are trying to keep Muslim refugees from moving to Tennessee, Jeanette Lee of Franklin answered with an emphatic “no,” calling the insinuation “cheap.”
“Race and ethnicity has nothing to do with this,” she said.