Tennessee Takes Federal Refugee Program to Court

JACKSON, Tenn. (CN) – Tennessee sued the federal government Monday, claiming it violated the 10th Amendment by threatening the Volunteer State with Medicaid cuts unless it agrees to help fund the resettlement of refugees in the U.S.

The complaint – filed in Jackson, Tenn., federal court by the Tennessee General Assembly and two elected officials – says the federal Refugee Admissions Program violates the 10th Amendment’s protection of state sovereignty as well as the U.S. Constitution’s Spending Clause.

“This suit is not intended to inflict harm on immigrants or refugees from any nation,” the lawsuit states. “Rather, this is a suit that seeks to preserve the constitutional relationship between the federal government and the states as mandated by our nation’s founders.”

According to the complaint, the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980 originally called for reimbursement of expenses to the states, but that was eliminated in 1991.

Tennessee says it spent more than $31 million in 2015 to support the refugee resettlement program through TennCare, its version of Medicaid jointly funded by the state and the federal government.

After first voluntarily participating in the refugee program, the state unsuccessfully tried to withdraw from it in 2008.

“Despite Tennessee notifying the federal government that it declined to further implement, fund, or participate in the federal refugee resettlement program, the federal government—through various regulations and statutes—coerced the state to continue funding the refugee resettlement program by threatening the state with the loss of federal Medicaid funding,” the complaint states. “The federal government nullified the decision of the people of Tennessee to withdraw from an ostensibly voluntary federal program and thereby commandeered state funds to support a federal initiative.”

Specifically, Tennessee claims it is threatened with the loss of $7 billion in annual Medicaid funding – nearly 20 percent of its overall state budget.

“The conditions set by the federal government that compel the state of Tennessee to permit individuals in the refugee resettlement program access to Medicaid are not germane to the operation or functioning of the state’s Medicaid program as a whole,” it says. “The refugee resettlement program also commandeers other state funds and instrumentalities through health and welfare programs and public schooling, including the program known as ‘English Language Learners,’ as mandated by 20 U.S.C. § 1703.”

The Volunteer State seeks a court order stopping the federal government from resettling more refugees in Tennessee unless it pays for the resettlement itself.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the U.S. State Department; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration; bureau head Simon Henshaw; the Department of Health and Human Services; its secretary Tom Price; and the Office of Refugee Resettlement; and its acting director, Ken Tota.

A State Department spokesperson said it does not comment on pending litigation.

In addition to the state of Tennessee and its Legislature, the plaintiffs also include Sen. John Stevens, R-Huntingdon, and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster.

They are represented by Richard Thompson with the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., which said last year that it was chosen by Tennessee lawmakers to represent the state in its challenge to the refugee program.

At the time, Rep. Weaver said, “Of all the legislation that I have worked on, this by far is the most important. The only way we can get back to our constitutional beginnings and the intent birthed by our founding fathers is to go and take it back.”

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