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VOL. 39 | NO. 48 | Friday, November 27, 2015

If fear is the goal, terrorists have won in Tennessee

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The terrorists who struck Paris three weeks ago succeeded in more than killing and wounding hundreds of people. Their attack is pitting Americans against each other in how to respond, and Tennessee politicians are no exception.

In this Republican-dominated state, GOP leaders are demanding suspension of Syrian refugees coming into Tennessee and the country while Democrats and immigrant advocates are taking more measured steps.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who admits he is somewhat of a reactionary, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, led Tennessee’s legislative response by calling for the federal government to prohibit Syrian refugees from entering the country, citing the Paris bombings and an attack in Chattanooga this summer as evidence the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is turning up operations in Europe and the United States.

Ramsey and Harwell call the massive movement of legitimate refugees from war-torn Syria “heartbreaking” as they escape political persecution.

Some 10,000 Syrian refugees escaping civil war were expected to come to America, many of them to Tennessee. A Syrian passport was found on one of the bombers who blew himself up outside the national soccer stadium in Paris, eliciting concerns Syrian terrorists could be infiltrating France with a wave of refugees. French authorities have since determined the passport is a fake, the Washington Post reports.

“But the opportunity that radical Islamists could embed themselves in the movement of refugees is large and growing. These refugees are impossible to thoroughly investigate and properly vet,” the Ramsey-Harwell statement says.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we must use any and all legal means at our disposal to stop the flow of refugees to Tennessee. We are calling for our federal representatives to place an immediate moratorium on refugees entering the United States, specifically Tennessee.”

Not surprisingly, the Ramsey-Harwell statement went out before Gov. Bill Haslam issued a statement asking the federal government to suspend placement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee until states can become more of a partner in the vetting process.

“We are currently working to get specifics from the U.S. Department of State on the status of any Syrian refugees currently slated to come to Tennessee,” Haslam’s first statement says.

“While screening, acceptance and placement is legally under the authority of the federal government, they have said in the past they would be open to cooperating with receiving states.”

He distanced himself from comments by state Rep. Glen Casada, who says the Tennessee National Guard should be mobilized to round up Syrian refugees and turn them back over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The governor explains he believes the state needs to be more involved in knowing who is being placed within its boundaries.

“However, let me be clear: We must not lose ourselves in the process. If we abandon our values by completely shutting our doors to those who seek the freedom we enjoy or mistreating our neighbors who made it here after enduring unimaginable hardships, the terrorists win.”

Casada stands by his words, though, saying he made them based on statements by an ISIS leader who wants to export terror to the United States and the FBI director, who says he can’t guarantee “no risk” with the admission of Syrian refugees to the country.

“We’re going to have another Paris, France in the United States if we don’t take bold action,” says Casada, a Franklin Republican and chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

He refers to himself as a Paul Revere of sorts in sounding the alarm and calls Democrats too politically correct in their assessment of the situation.

Minority reaction

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons and other Democrats say Casada’s call for civil disobedience is “fearmongering” at its worst and runs the risk of returning the United States to the World War II era when it placed Japanese Americans in internment camps.

“Have we learned nothing from history? Our country, unfortunately, has several stains on our history. That is certainly one of them, and from all indications Chairman Casada wishes to repeat that,” says Clemmons, a Nashville attorney who is becoming one of the minority party’s more outspoken leaders.

Clemmons says he believes Haslam is responding to “pressure” from leadership within the Republican Party, but he notes the governor clearly understands Tennessee can’t act unilaterally.

Clemmons, Rep. Mike Stewart and other Democrats requested an attorney general’s opinion on the question of whether Tennessee can stop refugee resettlement based on a person’s religion or country of origin.

“I think it’s clearly unconstitutional and contrary to law for our state or governor to do that without the permission of the federal government,” Clemmons adds.

The responsibility to prohibit terrorists from slipping into the country lies with the feds, but the state should complement those efforts, rather than “create a rift” with federal agencies, Clemmons points out.

He and others propose using the state’s growing surplus to bolster the Department of Safety and Homeland Security to deal with terrorism concerns.

Action anticipated

A hearing is likely to be held in early December to discuss Tennessee’s refugee resettlement program, which has been overseen by Catholic Charities since the state withdrew from its administration in 2008.

Tennessee had 1,601 refugees resettle statewide in fiscal 2015, 1,142 in the Nashville area. Only 30 of those came from Syria, compared to 393 from Burma and 332 from Iraq, according to Catholic Charities.

The refugee vetting process is intense, taking 18 to 24 months, state refugee coordinator Holly Johnson explains.

“Every refugee receives a face-to-face interview with the Department of Homeland Security. Their story is checked and rechecked and verified to ensure they meet the definition of refugee and to ensure they’re admissible to the U.S.,” Johnson says.

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, Counterterrorism Council and international agencies are involved, as well, with most of the work being done before people arrive on U.S. soil, according to Johnson.

Legislation to return control of refugees to the state has been drawn up already. Johnson declined to respond to such a move but says the nonprofit agency is in the first year of a four-year agreement with the federal government.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Bill Ketron is drafting legislation to figure the cost of refugee resettlement to Tennessee in an effort to give the state more control over refugees placed here.

The Murfreesboro Republican, who co-chairs the Fiscal Review Committee, says he adamantly opposes placement of Syrian refugees in the state and is glad to see an effort taken to stop it.

“I have been very concerned for many years that what happened in Paris could happen here because of the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the federal government’s refugee resettlement program,” Ketron explains. “I am encouraged that now that others recognize the dangers of this practice that it can be stopped.”

Ketron says his legislation, which he plans to introduce in January, is designed to help the state determine the cost of refugee resettlement, including health care, education and welfare programs. For example, the state has no mechanism to count the number of refugees on the TennCare program, the state’s Medicaid program.

“Currently, we do not collect the data we need to give us that information. This bill is about transparency so that we know the full costs of supporting these refugees that the federal government has thrust upon us,” he adds.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini says Ketron’s proposal makes no sense because the costs of resettlement are calculated already, with the federal government bearing the cost.

A recent study by the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee found refugees generate twice as much money as they cost, according to Johnson with Catholic Charities.

“I welcome any substantive conversation about real unknown issues that the governor or Ketron or anyone else wants to have with the federal government,” Mancini points out. “But to just go in this direction and get answers to questions we already have the answers to, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Mancini notes it is “only natural” for people to be anxious after the Paris bombing, but any type of response should be directed toward those who perpetrated the acts.

“When we’re talking about taking refugees into Tennessee, we’re talking about folks who are mostly women and children, who have been vetted by the federal government,” Mancini says.

Congressional reaction

Every member of Tennessee’s congressional delegation, except Rep. Steve Cohen, voted in favor of a House measure suspending Syrian and Iraqi refugee entrance into the country until national security agencies certify they aren’t a security risk.

Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, says he opposed it because it targeted Syrians and Iraqis.

Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper, on the other hand, reportedly voted for the resolution because it did nothing but restate current law.

Not surprisingly, U.S. Senate Democrats are promising to kill the measure, and President Barack Obama wants to continue refugee resettlement under existing guidelines.

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on CNN recently, says military action alone won’t work against ISIS. In addition, the country must forge a new political solution, with cooperation from Russia, Iran and others to defeat ISIS.

From France’s quick response in the days immediately after the attack, it sounds as if they’re finally ready to bring this terror under control.

More than that, a united front of freedom-loving countries, as well as nemesis nations, will be needed to blot out this collection of crazy people.

Such a response should bring agreement from Tennesseans of every political stripe, no matter the debate about refugees.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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