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Tennessee files lawsuit over refugee program

By SHEILA BURKEAssociated Press

NASHVILLE -- The state of Tennessee has filed a lawsuit against the federal government challenging the constitutionality of its refugee resettlement program.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday by the Tennessee General Assembly, argues that the program is forcing the state to spend money on additional services for refugees, such as health care and education.

The litigation, which does not have the backing of Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam or state Attorney General Herbert Slatery, outraged advocates for refugees.

The lawsuit accuses the government of "commandeering state money" by coercing the state to pay for costs of the refugees by threatening Tennessee with cutting off $7 billion worth of Medicaid funding.

"The state funds commandeered to support the federal government's refugee resettlement program deprive plaintiffs of scarce financial resources that are critical for protecting the welfare, health, and safety of all Tennesseans," the suit says. State money used for refugee services included education, funding for English language learners and other programs, the suit says.

The Thomas More Law Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Republican-dominated General Assembly after the attorney general refused to file the suit on behalf of the state. The private firm is representing the Legislature for free.

Federal courts have dismissed similar lawsuits filed by Texas and Alabama.

The Thomas More Law Center, a public-interest firm that defends Christian values, said in a press statement that Tennessee was the first state to challenge the constitutionality of the refugee resettlement program.

The lawsuit was the result of a resolution passed last year that demanded the state file a lawsuit over the refugee program. The resolution passed after fears of refugees in Tennessee came into focus following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

Gov. Bill Haslam let the resolution become law without signing it. Haslam has expressed concerns about one branch of government demanding action from another. He also has said that he didn't think that the people who are coming into the country to do harm are doing it under the refugee resettlement program.

"The governor's position on this has not changed since last year when he let the resolution that allows the General Assembly to file a lawsuit to take effect without his signature," Jennifer Donnals, a spokeswoman for Haslam, said in an email.

One of Tennessee's most outspoken advocates of refugees condemned the lawsuit, saying the refugee program has already been stalled because of President Donald Trump's recent suspension of the refugee admission program for 120 days.

"Amidst the largest displacement of people since World II, the president has already brought the entire refugee resettlement program to a grinding halt, shutting our doors on families fleeing war and violence," Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said in an email.

"Not wanting to be outdone by the federal government, our Legislature is proceeding with this extreme lawsuit in hopes of locking the door and throwing away the key."

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