Tennessee Governor Bill Lee delivers his "State of East Tennessee" address Thursday night, Feb. 6, 2020, at the East Tennessee State University Millenium Center in Johnson City, Tenn. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday passionately defended his decision to accept refugees into the state as he spoke before a group of GOP stalwarts and activists, some of whom openly questioned the move.

With some audience members at the 1st Tuesday luncheon seemingly confusing undocumented immigrants with refugees, Lee said President Donald Trump's order reshaping the U.S. refugee resettlement program dramatically cut the number of refugees coming into the country from 90,000 annually to 18,000.

"Congress has the responsibility to create an immigration policy that works for us," Lee said. "There's no way to answer — at the state [level] we have no say in immigration policy."

Unlike legal and illegal immigrants, refugees in the federal program are "politically oppressed or religiously oppressed" and "very different" from others, Lee said.

And they are carefully vetted, he added.

(Read more: Sen. Bell files bill challenging Gov. Lee's authority to act alone on refugee resettlement)

Lee, a religious conservative who has done mission work outside the U.S., said, "I've been to refugee camps — actually outside of Kurdistan in Iraq."

"I know what Christians being persecuted as a result of ISIS look like," Lee added. "And I've worked with ministry organizations that go there. I've been to the north of Africa and been in refugee camps of mostly children whose parents were slaughtered at the hands of Joseph Kony in South Sudan.

"I know what political oppression looks like. And refugees are not the same as illegal immigrants trying to come into this country," Lee said.

Unlike legal or illegal immigration, the state will have control over the refugee resettlement program, the governor said, and will be able to end participation at any time if needed.

Trump's executive order leaves the decision up to governors whether or not to participate in the revamped refugee resettlement program.

Some of Lee's fellow Republicans in the General Assembly are unhappy with his decision to accept refugees, and one GOP lawmaker has introduced legislation trying to block the governor's plan.

Lee said he feels strongly about the refugees "because of my interests in that and my belief that this country has generations of a history of providing opportunity to those who are oppressed — and truly oppressed."

It is "a moral obligation and for me, because of my faith and biblical mandate, I'm very interested," the governor added, noting his administration spoke with Trump officials about the vetting process and "we are going to know" who the people are coming in.

As one woman began saying Trump's revised resettlement policy allows states to reject refugees "where they're not welcome," Lee interjected to say, "that's right. So they get placed in North Carolina and they want to come live in Nashville with their Kurdish family. They will try to cross the border and come in here and we will not know who they are."

In that case, Lee said, "we will have no control over this process. And you may like not having control over who comes into this state, but I don't." A number of audience members applauded the governor's comment.

(Read more: Tennessee governor says state will keep resettling refugees)

The governor noted his wife, Maria, has worked with Kurdish refugees in Nashville, mainly women who fled the country. A number of them are widows of interpreters for U.S. forces, he said.

"And their husbands died as a result of working with Americans. I'm not turning my back on those people," Lee said, drawing another round of applause from some audience members. He smiled and then said, "I'll stop talking about that."

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Lee observed "that was quite a lively crowd," then, chuckling, added, "I made it livelier, I think."

Lee said he wasn't taken aback by the questions and differences, noting, "really difficult decisions have disagreement. And this was a very difficult decision and there certainly is disagreement. But it's not the first time and it won't be the last."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.