What Happens When States Have The Power To Reject Refugees

Nov 11, 2019
Originally published on November 11, 2019 6:30 pm
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Zero refugees were admitted to the U.S. last month. It's the first time that's happened in nearly 30 years, according to the resettlement agency World Relief. And now the Trump administration is taking another step as it moves to slash refugee admissions. It wants to give state and local governments the power to reject any future refugees. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Muna Muday knows the agony of waiting in a refugee camp.

MUNA MUDAY: What refugees go through, you know, in the refugee camps is totally unimaginable. It's an experience that nobody can even describe.

ROSE: Muday's family fled the civil war in Somalia. They were set to leave the camp in Kenya and fly to America when September 11th happened and refugee resettlement in the U.S. was suspended.

MUDAY: So it was just, you know, a devastating moment of our life.

ROSE: Muday's family did eventually make it to the U.S. They landed in Nashville in 2004. Today, Muday is studying for her master's degree in public health at Vanderbilt University. But she's worried about other refugee families who may be stuck just like hers was.

MUDAY: Right now, it feels like a similar experience of what is happening now under the Trump administration. It's very sad to see that, you know, someone who's a leader of our nation do this to people that really need the help that they need.

ROSE: The Trump administration has been scaling back the U.S. refugee program for years. Now it wants to give states and towns the power to block any refugees from resettling in their backyards. When the U.S. accepts refugees, the federal government works with nonprofit agencies to find refugees a place to live. An executive order released in September now gives local officials a bigger say in the process. President Trump talked up his new policy at a rally in Minnesota, which has a huge Somali refugee population.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You should be able to decide what is best for your own cities and for your own neighborhoods. And that's what you have the right to do right now. And believe me, no other president would be doing that.

ROSE: No states have taken Trump up on his offer so far. That's partly because the final details are still being worked out. But activists are worried that several states will, including Texas, which receives more refugees than any other state, also Florida, Georgia and Tennessee where state lawmakers have been fighting in federal court for years to block refugee resettlement. Terri Lynn Weaver is one of those lawmakers. Her own father was a refugee who came to Ohio from Yugoslavia.

TERRI LYNN WEAVER: I am not against refugees coming to the United States, obviously, because my family came in that same scenario. I just don't think it should be something that the taxpayers should be funding.

ROSE: The federal government pays for most benefits the refugees get. Those states are on the hook for some Medicaid costs and public education. Weaver says refugees cost the state of Tennessee, quote, "millions" of dollars per year but declined to give an exact figure. She says her own father didn't get any public benefits when he arrived.

WEAVER: My father always told me he's not a German American. He is an American. And so they came here and embraced our values, our principles and the way we do things in this country.

ROSE: Do you think that today's refugees are not doing that?

WEAVER: I'm not going to say all of them, but there's a large number of them we're concerned with that they don't like our values. They don't like our principles. And I don't know about you, but I want to preserve what made us a great country to begin with.

ROSE: Tennessee's lawsuit was dismissed by a federal court, but Weaver says they will appeal, all the way to the Supreme Court. Dozens of volunteers and immigrant advocates gathered at the Woodmont Hills Church in Nashville on a recent Saturday morning to share their experiences and tips on working with refugees. Brent Roe-Hall is a minister at the church.

BRENT ROE-HALL: Our city, our state and our country is better off for the refugee neighbors that we have here with us. Would you agree with that?

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ROSE: The immigrant advocates here say most refugees become self-sufficient within months. If refugees can't come to Tennessee anymore, advocates worry they'll be stuck even longer in crowded camps around the world. They don't know yet if Tennessee's governor, Republican Bill Lee, will decide to stop refugee resettlement. Lee's office declined to comment for this story. Roe-Hall says they'll appeal to Lee's faith.

ROE-HALL: Considering the governor that we have here in Tennessee who claims to be a Christian, I would want to call on him to uphold his Christian ideals of loving neighbor as self, of caring for those who are vulnerable and need a family.

ROSE: And if that doesn't work, immigrant advocates say they expect to challenge the White House order on refugees in court.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.