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Jasmin Foric from Bosnia and Najar Alsad from Iraq hold candles Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, during a We All Belong vigil at Coolidge Park in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith

As the Hamilton County Commission and Mayor Jim Coppinger debated the mayor's impending decision on whether to allow refugees to continue to resettle in the county, a federal judge on Wednesday blocked an executive order from President Donald Trump, which granted the authority to state and local governments to halt resettlement.

At the morning's otherwise tame commission meeting, District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey invited representatives of Hamilton County's Bridge Refugee Services to publicly plead for Coppinger to approve the program ahead of Tuesday's deadline for federal funding.

Simultaneously, U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland released a decision blocking the executive order signed by Trump in September, allowing governors and subsequently executive officers of localities — in Hamilton County's case, Mayor Coppinger — to opt out of participating in the federal resettlement program. It has been controversial in cities across the country, with some calling it a state-by-state ban.

In his opinion, Messitte said that under his temporary stay, the resettlement program will continue to operate as it has in the past until appeals of the executive order are settled.

"By giving States and Local Governments the power to veto where refugees may be resettled — in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose, Congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings, and Constitutional doctrine to the contrary — Order 13888 does not appear to serve the overall public interest," Messitte wrote in his opinion."Refugee resettlement activity should go forward as it developed for the almost 40 years before Executive Order 13888 was announced."

Martin Lester, an immigration attorney and chairman of the Hamilton County Bridge Board, considers Messitte's decision to be a victory founded on the same principals he and other advocates used to try and persuade Coppinger during the commission meeting.

"Messitte's opinion and order 'reinstates the status quo immediately preceding the issuance of the proclamation of the Order on September 26, 2019' and enjoins the President and responsible Cabinet secretaries from enforcing the Executive Order," Lester wrote in an email Wednesday. "I have a call in to our counsel to discuss how Bridge thinks this order will affect us. It is interesting, however, that the opinion cites as some of its reasons the fact that the Order does not clarify who exactly at the local level has to make the decision, what factors he or she can consider, and how the refugee agencies are supposed to figure out what consents are needed — all factors that came up in today's Commission discussion."

While Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has passionately, along with governors of 41 other states, signed on to participate in the federal program and Tennessee's largest cities of Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville have subsequently agreed to accept refugees through the program, the ambiguity of the stay's impact on funding deadlines only complicates the issue for an unresolved Coppinger.

 

'Optics'

During commission announcements Wednesday, Mackey invited representatives of the local Bridge office to speak, spurring about an hour and a half of discussion on whether Coppinger should or should not issue approval of the program, which has housed refugees in Hamilton County for roughly four decades.

The debate included a plea from Bridge Associate Director and Ukrainian Native Marina Peshterianu, who asked Coppinger to approve the county's participation in the program, which provides background information on refugees and unmatched federal funding to Bridge to help them resettle.

"It's important that we realize that these are most vulnerable people and they do not have a place to go," Peshterianu said. "The United States always was and always will be a beacon of Hope and a beacon of light for people who need a chance to rebuild their lives, and refugees are those people. Hamilton County proudly resettled refugees for four decades, maybe quietly. But still, they're here, they're your neighbors the federal funding that we receive is enough for them to get going and start their lives."

Last year, Hamilton County Bridge helped resettle 80 refugees, more than any Tennessee county other than Davidson. With the Trump administration lowering the number of total refugees to be accepted into the country from around 30,000 to 18,000, Peshterianu believes the local number would decrease similarly.

Still, committing to the previously supported program has not come easy to Coppinger.

To try and provide "cover" for the mayor who is saddled with making this decision, Mackey introduced a resolution to "encourage" the mayor to authorize resettlement in Hamilton County at the last commission meeting before the funding deadline.

"I understand the pressing timeline of this matter and how it puts people on the spot, and no one likes to be out on the spot, myself included," District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe said, seconding Mackey's resolution. "[But] I would like to publicly show the grace of Hamilton County and potentially show grace to these well-vetted refugees."

District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd argued that "the optics looked bad," and the commission should not vote on this issue without giving potential opponents of the program a forum. The resolution ultimately failed with four in favor, three abstentions and two commissioners leaving before the vote was cast.

Without the proposed "cover" of the resolution, Coppinger continued to hedge on the issue, saying he was hesitant to sign on until he had a better understanding of the legal and fiscal impact of participating in the program.

"There's a lot of misinformation as it relates to what refugees would be coming here. Again, they're fully vetted and they've been coming to our country for decades and wouldn't it make more sense to have them come here [through the program] with federal dollars attached?" Coppinger said. "I just want to make sure I'm not doing anything to put an extra burden on the taxpayers."

Coppinger would not comment on whether he expected to make a decision before the deadline at the time of the meeting. Upon learning of the judge's temporary block of the executive order later Wednesday afternoon, the mayor said he will now also have to learn more about the implications of the judge's decision before he makes any movement on the county level.

 

State and local leaders torn

One Tennessee legislative critic of Lee's decision, Rep. Bruce Griffey, R-Paris, has already filed legislation he hopes will block that.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told reporters Wednesday "it seems like there's going to be various attempts at different types of legislation around that issue. I think that's one. We're looking at the language of that. I think legal has a couple of questions ... they'd like to have addressed on that one."

He said one of the issues involves state and local costs, which he said legislative analysts in 2012 were unable to pin down because they lacked adequate information.

Tennessee Republican lawmakers later voted to sue the federal government over the Obama-era refugee resettlement program and entered into an agreement with outside lawyers to handle their case after the state attorney general refused to sue.

After being dealt setbacks before the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, attorneys from the conservative Thomas More Legal Center have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case.

Sexton said while proponents say the refugees are carefully vetted, Sexton said "I'm not going to dismiss the security [issue]. We're going to have to talk to the congressional delegation to give us how well they think it is. But even with the best vetting process you can't always be sure that none of the bad guys are getting into this process."

In late December, a tweet briefly posted on the Hamilton County Republican Party's Twitter feed criticized both Lee and Chattanooga Mayor Berke for supporting continued participation in the resettlement program.

"Gov. Bill Lee and Mayor Burke are all WRONG on #refugee resettlement into area," the tweet, which was reported by the conservative Tennessee Star website, said. "See demise of cities like Deerborn, MI, Minneapolis, MN and others w/no ASSIMILATION, citizens forced out #badpolicy #blockit #backdooramnesty Help refugees in home territory!"

The post was quickly removed. Times Free Press efforts to reach Hamilton County GOP Chairwoman Marsha Yessick last month were unsuccessful.

But a local Republican familiar with the issue was told no official action on the refugee resettlement issue was ever taken by the local GOP's executive committee on the refugee issue.

The Republican also said the tweet was posted by someone who had access to the Twitter account but not authorized to post.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.

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

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