Cooper: State lawsuit says refugee support an unfunded federal mandate

Cooper: State lawsuit says refugee support an unfunded federal mandate

March 15th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Attendees raise candles at a February vigil in support of immigrants at Chattanooga's Coolidge Park.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Refugees, aliens and immigrants

A refugee is any person who is outside his or her country of residence or nationality, or without nationality, and is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country ... .

An alien is an individual who is not a United States citizen or U.S. national.

An immigrant is an alien who has been granted the right by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to reside permanently in the United States and to work without restrictions in the United States.

Source: U.S. government

Tennessee took a unique step Monday in filing suit against the federal government over refugee resettlement.

On paper, it looks like a winner. But in this day of partisan courts, nothing is certain.

The Thomas More Law Center, on behalf of several members of the state General Assembly, filed the challenge based on the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says all powers not expressly given to the federal government in the Constitution are reserved for the states.

The suit claims the federal government is not complying with the Refugee Act of 1980, based on the amendment, which said that 100 percent of each state's cost of Medicaid and cash welfare benefits provided to each resettled refugee during their first 36 months in the United States would be reimbursed by the federal government.

No other than liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy, the legislation's chief sponsor, made sure the point got across back then.

"... the committee was mindful," he said on the Senate floor, "of the deep concern of many State and local agencies that Federal assistance authorized under these programs should be for a reasonable period of time — to assure that local communities will not be taxed for a program they did not initiate."

Within five years, though, the federal government began shifting financial responsibility to the states, and within 10 years, the federal government eliminated all reimbursement of state costs. The refugee program became yet another unfunded federal mandate.

It's not like the feds aren't aware of costs to the state, either. In 2010, for instance, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations — now chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. — reviewed the refugee admissions program, examining specifically the costs associated with the education and health care of refugees that the states were now having to pay.

Since Tennessee opted out of the refugee program in 2007, one might wonder why the state is still concerned. But the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement designated Catholic Charities of Tennessee to continue to administer the program using state funds.

"Operation of the federal refugee resettlement program commandeers Tennessee's funds through Medicaid with the threatened loss of nearly $7 billion, amounting to 20 percent of its overall state budget," the lawsuit states, "— money that is needed to fund services that are critical to the health and welfare of countless Tennesseans."

The state also is on the hook for refugees who meet the eligibility requirements for TennCare and for the cost of educating refugee children in public schools.

Thus, Tennessee's lawsuit asks the federal government to stop resettling refugees in the state — more than 2,000 were settled here in fiscal 2016 — until costs associated with the program are assumed by the federal government.

In April 2016, the General Assembly, led by now-Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, overwhelmingly passed authorization to file a lawsuit over the continued use of state funds to fund the program. However, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery declined to file suit.

So, on Monday, the Michigan-based Thomas More Center filed the lawsuit — unique among states who have sought legal relief from the refugee program — without charge to the state. The filing had been delayed last month in hopes of action by the Trump administration.

Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the law center, noted in a news release that the program actually is operating unconstitutionally in the states.

"Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts has observed, 'The states are separate and independent sovereigns. Sometimes they have to act like it,'" he said. "We intend to follow that advice in our lawsuit ... ."

State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, who is serving as one of the named plaintiffs representing the state and the General Assembly, said the suit is about more than the resettlement of refugees.

"The only way we can get back to our constitutional beginnings and our intent birthed by our Founding Fathers," she said, "is to go and take it back. We are looking forward to linking arms with the Thomas More Law Center for the long haul to regain sovereignty for our great state."

In the meantime, President Donald Trump's revised executive order, assuming it goes into effect as planned on Thursday, temporarily halts the refugee program in Tennessee and across the country.

Should Tennessee's lawsuit find favor in the courts, it would affect the refugee program across the country. On the other hand, name all the unfunded mandates that have been reversed by the courts. Yet, if the federal government actually had to make good on all its unfunded mandates, it might not be so free with taxpayer money in the first place.

Well, we can hope.

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