It was a foregone conclusion. Tennessee is set to receive at least 415 Afghan refugees in the coming weeks, yet Gov. Bill Lee is calling on the White House to provide detailed information — "full transparency" — on who will be arriving.
This from the same governor who, along with many other state Republicans, pitched a fit about unaccompanied minor children being temporarily sheltered in Chattanooga from countries below our Southern border.
Initial projections show Nashville will be receiving the vast majority of the Afghan individuals — 350 — while Memphis is set to receive 25 and Knoxville and Chattanooga can expect about 20 Afghan refugees each. Individuals arriving through the federal program will be served by private local resettlement agencies such as Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga.
To be fair, Lee last week finally said he supports the resettlement of American allies from Afghanistan. But he apparently still wants to make a show of distrusting the Biden administration as yet another way of dog-whistling to conservative voters.
The U.S. Department of State's Afghan Placement and Assistance Program emailed the Lee administration Wednesday about the expected arrivals and noted that the numbers are expected to grow, according to The Tennessean, which obtained a copy of the email.
Lee's office confirmed Friday they had received limited information earlier in the week from President Joe Biden's administration about plans to resettle Afghans around the country.
"Significant details are still outstanding, and as I've said before, the federal government owes Tennesseans full transparency into their plan and vetting process," Lee said in a statement in response to questions from The Tennessean.
It is possible that five of the 20 headed to Chattanooga are the parents, wife and two siblings of Wahid Dorany, an Afghan American and Chattanooga area resident, who in August worked with friends and military staff in Afghanistan to facilitate his family's evacuation from Kabul.
Dorany in 2014 had received a Special Immigrant Visa and moved to the United States in fear for his and his family's lives after serving on the front lines with the Army and the Marines in Afghanistan for three years as an interpreter.
Dorany has since lived with new Lookout Mountain resident David Kinzler, the first Marine for whom Dorany ever interpreted. Kinzler and military "friends of friends" helped Dorany get his family evacuated by connecting with a Marine captain on the ground in Afghanistan on Aug. 25. Dorany's family then joined an estimated 50,000 displaced Afghans already in or headed to the U.S.
Dorany says he and his family are fortunate to already have a strong support system in the U.S. and in the Chattanooga region. He hopes other refugee families will be welcomed with similar levels of support across the country.
But Lee and other Republican governors have the power to help or hinder support — simply with rhetoric.
Lee was criticized by some conservatives in 2019 after his decision to continue accepting refugees in Tennessee, so it's perhaps not surprising that he was initially reticent in August and earlier this month to say he would welcome more refugees. That GOP criticism, no doubt, also was at least partly responsible for his screech over Latino children temporarily sheltered here in the spring.
But on Friday, talking with reporters, Lee tried to walk both sides of the fence: "The situation in Afghanistan is horrific, and we must bring Americans home safely and support allies who have fought alongside U.S. troops. Whether it's persecuted Christians or interpreters who served with our troops, Tennesseans have the right to know exactly who is being settled where. While we await more information from the federal government, we are in direct communication with our congressional delegation, members of the General Assembly and local officials."
In the meantime, Lee has joined 25 other GOP governors to request a meeting with Biden to discuss a "surge" in border crossings. Since October 2020, migrant encounters have topped 1.5 million, the highest level compared to recent years, according to federal data. The GOP has blamed the Biden administration for the spike, but in reality the cases were already surging months before Biden took office.
In the GOP letter, Lee and other signers argued the "unenforced borders" contributed to a surge in human and drug trafficking, particularly the drug fentanyl. Fact-checking by multiple news outlets shows, however, that while the fentanyl claim is accurate, drug seizures overall have trended down in the months since Biden took office and remain at a lower level than in recent years. Also, there is no evidence that border crossings are linked to any increase in human trafficking.
As for the so-called "blindsiding" of state officials when unaccompanied minors were flown into Chattanooga and kept at the shelter, those practices also had been going on for years before Biden took office. The shelter was approved by the Lee administration a year before when Trump was still president.
It's just politics, as far as Lee and those other GOP governors are concerned.
But at the end of the day, those politics have a great deal of potential for hurting us, and for hurting these refugee families.
We must not let that happen.