TN Lawmakers Commission – Then Reject – Study Showing Refugees Contribute To Economy

Refugee families from Myanmar and the Kurdistan region of Iraq learn "survival English" from TFLI instructor Ashley Ekers. In the last five years, placements in Tennessee have ranged from 1,000 - 1,600 a year, according toe Catholic Charities. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Refugee families from Myanmar and the Kurdistan region of Iraq learn “survival English” from TFLI instructor Ashley Ekers. In the last five years, placements in Tennessee have ranged from 1,000 – 1,600 a year, according to Catholic Charities. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Conservative Republican lawmakers have been trying to figure out how much refugees are costing Tennessee, so they commissioned the state’s non-partisan Fiscal Review Committee to look into it. Now, those lawmakers don’t like what the researchers found.

The estimates show Tennessee taxpayers spent $40 million last year to educate school-age refugees and $26 million to cover those on the state’s Medicaid program – TennCare. But refugees more than pay their way, remitting more than $103 million in taxes.

Researchers say there was some data they couldn’t get a hold of. For instance, the study doesn’t consider how many refugees might be in prison. The study also assumes refugees generate the same amount of taxes as the average Tennessean. State Rep. Joe Carr (R-Lascassas) sees holes:

We don’t know if it’s flawed. But we don’t know if it’s accurate. So if we don’t know if it’s accurate or flawed, what was the point of the study?

Carr is part of a subcommittee with the Joint Government Operations Committee that has been working on the assumption that there are hidden costs to allowing refugees to be resettled in Tennessee.

Refugees are notoriously hard to track. Once they’re placed by the U.S. State Department, they often move again. And then they have kids. Tennessee’s estimated population of refugees is 57,869.

Mohamed Hassan of Somalia is one of them, and he feels singled out. He says many seeking asylum in the U.S. have no desire to rely on government programs.

“We come here to work,” he says. “That freedom, that’s all we ever wanted.”

Religious Undertones?

Hassan – who is Muslim – also senses religious undertones to the resettlement  debate.

Some of the same lawmakers leading the inquiry have – in other settings – spoken out against Islam and introduced legislation targeting Muslims, like Rep. Judd Matheny‘s (R-Tullahoma) attempt to ban Sharia Law.

“The language and everything has changed,” Hassan says. “But I’m under the impression that the intention is still there, going solely after certain people.”

Matheny  – who chairs  the subcommittee – has been careful to steer the conversation away from any mention of Islam. He ignored questions from reporters after Tuesday’s hearing.

Carr defends Metheny, calling him a like-minded colleague.

“I can tell you flat out, [Matheny] and I have never had a conversation with regard to this particular committee and looking at the refugee resettlement program and how the monies and what the cost is to the state in any regard about anything other than the cost-shifting that we suspect is going on that we cannot quantify,” Carr said.

A Close Read Of The Refugee Report

Taking into account births, deaths and movement in and out of the state, Tennessee’s refugee population is growing faster than the state’s population as a whole. In 1990, refugees made up roughly half of one percent of the total population. Now refugees and their descendants make up closer to one percent (.9%) of Tennessee’s 6.5 million residents.

An estimated 9,200 refugees are students in K-12 schools. Most of those are in Metro Nashville Public Schools, which educates – by far – more refugees than any other system in the state.

Roughly 10,900 refugees – or nearly 19 percent of the state’s refugees – get health care through TennCare. Before Medicaid rolls were trimmed down after 2001, nearly 25 percent of refugees in the state were on TennCare.

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