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VOL. 44 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 14, 2020

Twisting religion to fit argument against refugees

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It’s worrisome when officials try to turn their private religious principles into public policy. Turns out it can also be worrisome when they ignore those principles.

Take the refugee resettlement program, a federal program designed to offer a haven for people who flee war, persecution or other dangers in their home countries.

Tennessee already has a fractious relationship with the program. The state withdrew as administrator in 2008. It has been fighting it in court since 2016, with a lawsuit claiming it’s unconstitutional “to commandeer state funds to finance a federal program.”

So far, judges have not looked favorably on that argument. But in September, President Trump issued an executive order allowing states and localities to refuse to accept refugees.

That made for some anxious times for the Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities that has administered the program since Tennessee washed its hands of it.

“I had heard that that was coming,” Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator for the office, says of the Trump order. “But nothing is sure until it’s sure, until you’ve seen it.”

Once they had seen it: “We were all sort of like, OK, now what? I’m an eternal optimist; I don’t automatically go to a bad place. But it’s certainly nervous making,” she says.

To his credit, Gov. Bill Lee, who along with his wife has worked with refugees in the Nashville area, announced in December that the state would continue accepting them.

“That was awesome,” Johnson says. “It’s just really nice when someone recognizes the cause that you fight for. We tell the refugee story every day, and it often falls on deaf ears.”

Lee, she says, “acknowledged that Tennessee is really that kind place that all of us have called home. It was a really good day.”

Enter the legislature, with three pairs of bills to undercut the governor. Enter, in particular, with the worst bill, Rep. Bruce Griffey, a freshman Republican from Paris who, if he had his way, would seemingly build a statutory wall around Tennessee to keep out anyone he deems unworthy.

Griffey spent much of his first year trying (and failing) to pass all manner of anti-immigrant bills. His bill for refugees would require that any resettlement here get a two-thirds vote of local government entities, followed by approval by two-thirds of both houses of the legislature.

“We were elected to represent Tennesseans,” The Scene quoted Griffey as saying. “We weren’t elected to represent the best interests of refugees.”

The notion that the two aren’t necessarily in conflict does not seem to have occurred to him.

Lee, in addressing criticism he’s gotten since his announcement, has charitably ascribed opposition as due to “misinformation,” conflating refugees with illegal immigrants. Johnson agrees that plays a role.

“I also think there’s the argument that this is how terrorists enter the country,” she added, and “that refugees are a big toll on the state budget. That’s just not the case at all.”

Before entering a country for resettlement, refugees are subjected to a thorough vetting process that Johnson says takes from 18 months to two years. And while state and local governments do incur costs associated with any residents – refugees or natives – a legislative fiscal review in 2013 found that “refugees brought in twice as much as they cost the state,” Johnson says.

And then there are the numbers. With this White House allowing fewer and fewer refugees into the country, Johnson says Tennessee would stand to resettle only about 300 people this year.

“It’s just such a small number,” she points out. “I mean, there might be more people than that in our building. I don’t even know why this is a thing.”

It’s a thing because of mean-spirited people.

The website for the Tennessee Office for Refugees has this quote near the top of the homepage: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

It’s from the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, reminding of the importance of hospitality and compassion as an expression of Christian love.

This effort by Griffey and others like it represent a profoundly un-Christian approach by a body that, in the past, has voted to make the Bible the official state book.

But even setting religion aside, the efforts fail the test of basic human kindness.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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