Skip to main content

Lawsuit to Ban Syrian Refugees From Tennessee About to Receive State Senate Stamp of Approval

Volunteer State gears up to join Alabama, Texas in attempting to keep out refugees fleeing ISIS, fearing they will bring ISIS with them.

Tennessee’s state Senate is poised to order the state to sue the federal government over its resettlement program for refugees from Syria, making it the third state to do so.

On Tuesday, the Senate’s Finance Committee will consider Senate Joint Resolution 0467, requiring the state’s attorney general to file a lawsuit for allegedly violating the Federal Refugee Act of 1980 by placing Syrian refugees in the state. It would also require the federal government to provide the states with certification that the refugees pose no security risk, as well as a complete profile, including medical history, of each refugee.

“The federal government has thus far refused to be a transparent partner in the refugee vetting process,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the resolution’s chief sponsor, said in a written statement. “If we are not able to identify potential threats, we cannot adequately protect our citizenry.”

The resolution has a high likelihood of passing not only the Finance Committee – where seven of the 11 members have signed on as cosponsors – but in the larger Senate as well, where 23 of the chamber’s 28 Republicans have signed on as well. The Senate’s five Democrats have so far refused to sign on to the legislation.

Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director for Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told the Tennesseean that the bill is counter-productive.

“It sort of betrays our American values,” she said. “It’s an embarrassing step for states to take.”

If the legislation passes the Senate, it is similarly likely to receive a warm welcome in the House, where members have already demanded such legislation. House GOP caucus chairman Glen Casada earlier opined that the state needed to round up all refugees from Syria and expel them from Tennessee.

"We need to activate the Tennessee National Guard and stop them from coming in to the state by whatever means we can," Casad said. "I’m not worried about what a bureaucrat in D.C. or an unelected judge thinks. ... We need to gather (Syrian refugees) up and politely take them back to the ICE center and say, 'They’re not coming to Tennessee, they’re yours.' "

Paul Galloway, executive director of the pro-refugee American Center for Outreach, based in Nashville, noted that Tennessee has a long history of being “a welcoming kind of place” and that this legislation is a betrayal of that heritage.

“I think that anytime you are talking about rounding people up, you have lost your way,” Galloway said.

Previously, Texas and Alabama have filed lawsuits along similar lines, demanding that the federal government cease sending them refugees from Syria. The government has responded by insisting that the states do not possess the legal prerogative to choose which refugees they receive from international resettlement programs.

According to an article promoting the Tennessee resolution in Breitbart News, all of these lawsuits are being channeled through the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thomas More Law Center, a religious-right organization that has previously involved itself in attempts to overturn a federal hate crimes law, to sue the government for a Department of Homeland Security bulletin on domestic extremism, and in attempts to defend Oklahoma’s short-lived law banning Shariah law in the state.

Concerns about refugees from Syria reached a feverish pitch in November, after the attacks by ISIS on civilians in Paris on Nov. 13. It was initially believed that the attackers had entered Europe as refugees (though this was later proven false). Nearly all of the nation’s Republican governors announced that they were planning to refuse to accept any refugees from Syria, even though those persons are largely fleeing civil war and terrorism inflicted by ISIS.

Federal authorities indeed have identified gaps in the ability to complete background checks on Syrian refugees, but despite coverage from right-wing media suggesting that they pose a security risk, the reality is that these refugees will receive an extraordinary amount of screening – the most, indeed, of any person seeking to enter the United States – before entering the U.S. relocation program. One study found that while the concerns about terrorism might be legitimate, the reasons for fear are wildly exaggerated, and only fuel the potential for real terrorism further down the road, since refugee camps can often turn into hotbeds of extremist recruitment.

“It’s deeply ironic that they’re punishing the victims of ISIS out of their own fear of ISIS,” Galloway observed, "especially when it comes from a state known for its hospitality."

Comments, suggestions or tips? Send them to HWeditor@splcenter.org and follow us on Twitter @Hatewatch.