Refugee, faith groups respond to Tennessee Republicans' uproar over asylum seekers

The exterior of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition building in Nashville is shown. The coalition is one of several Tennessee organizations helping asylum seekers and refugees to their homes with relatives in the U.S. / Lookout Photo by John Partipilo

A day after state Republican leaders condemned a plan to bring asylum seekers to Tennessee, faith leaders and immigrant advocates pushed back on "misleading" and "fear mongering" rhetoric they said runs contrary to the values of the Volunteer State.

In a flurry of statements released Tuesday, Gov. Bill Lee, GOP Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty, along with GOP leaders in the state legislature demanded that the Biden administration reverse a plan -- still in its preliminary stages -- to coordinate transportation of asylum seekers with advocacy groups and churches in Nashville.

"This is irresponsible and a threat to the safety of Tennesseans," Lee said in his statement. Blackburn suggested the federal government was "trafficking illegal migrants into our state." And Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti cited the "terrible harms" of an unsecured border that include fentanyl deaths and "child sex traffickers."

(READ MORE: Gov. Lee, Tennessee Republicans criticize federal plans to move some migrants here as Trump policy expires)

On Wednesday, immigrant advocates noted that the plan was an effort by the federal government to coordinate what has been a loose and ongoing process of migrants making their way to Nashville after being vetted and released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, often for short stints before reuniting with family in other states.

"For decades, Tennesseans have done this work formally and informally," said Lisa Sherman Luna, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, citing a history of welcoming immigrants and refugees that stretch back to the 1960s when Cubans arrived and continues today with Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. "We've welcomed people and supported them as they rebuild their lives in this country."

"The fact is none of this is new," she said. "Welcoming and hospitality is woven into the fabric of who Tennesseans are ... What is new, and an important first step, is a good faith effort to organize a coordinated response between governments and local process, to ensure that it is orderly."

"While we've seen other governors and mayors who have responded to newcomers arriving in buses from border states, using their power and resources to make the process as smooth as possible, Gov. Lee's response is really extreme and out of step with his constituents. Everyday Tennesseans don't need or want a governor who creates a crisis by going on Fox News. We need leadership who is going to live up to our values, who will join the work of our communities and not miss an opportunity to help people get home to their families in time for Christmas."

(READ MORE: Hispanic students and English learners are on the rise at Hamilton County Schools)

Several weeks ago, Sherman Luna and other groups got word that federal immigration officials were seeking an orderly way to transport asylum seekers from federal immigration processing centers -- a process that currently requires immigrants to make their own way to their final destination.

The plan called for federal officials to pay for buses to transport those who wished to travel to Tennessee. Local nonprofits and churches quickly stepped up to plan for temporary beds, transportation vouchers for flights out of Tennessee, food, diapers and other necessities, Sherman Luna said.

"When we put the call to action out, calling on people to help us get loved ones home just in time for Christmas we were overwhelmed with the support from volunteers, from churches and other partners who quickly stepped up to organize a robust and welcoming infrastructure," she said.

The status of those plans remains unclear. Skrmetti said he was "exploring all options" in efforts to halt the plans.

(READ MORE: Tennessee, Baptiste Group end legal battle over Chattanooga migrant center)

The vast majority of the immigrants are asylum seekers who have followed the legal process of presenting themselves at the U.S. border, assessed and found to have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries, said Lisa Graybill, vice president of Law and Policy for the National Immigration Law Center, who joined a press call with reporters to respond to Republican's claims.

A small minority of the immigrants would fall into a subset of asylum seekers making a second or subsequent attempt to come to the United States, she said. All of the potential immigrants have immigration court dates, are required to check in regularly with federal immigration officials and cleared the first hurdle in their asylum claims.

The Border Patrol also screens all immigrants against multiple public safety databases and assess whether the individual poses a general threat to public safety before releasing any individuals, an ICE spokesperson said.