In the 1990s, I worked in Kyrgyzstan to help integrate refugees from the civil war in Tajikistan. One of the greatest challenges we faced in securing housing, accessing land, and enrolling children in schools was resistance from the local community. We struggled to persuade the government to make abandoned municipal buildings available for refugee housing. Local residents resented the basic needs assistance we provided to refugees. As State and Local Advocacy Attorney at CLINIC, I have been reflecting back on this experience as I see a growing trend of state and local resistance to welcoming resettled refugees in the United States.
The U.S. generously opens its doors each year to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence and persecution. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, together with dioceses and Catholic Charities organizations across the country, helps to resettle as many as 20,000 refugees annually. While funded by the federal government, programs to assist with refugee resettlement are administered by the states. States receive federal funding to ease newly arrived refugees’ transition and enhance their self-sufficiency by providing healthcare and employment assistance, English language training, and other social services. Sadly, anti-refugee sentiment has bubbled up in a handful of states including New Hampshire, Massachusetts and, most notably, Tennessee.
Over the past six years, Tennessee officials have taken a series of steps to restrict the resettlement and integration of refugees. In 2007, Tennessee announced its plan to withdraw from administering federally-funded refugee resettlement services. In its place, Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office for Refugees (TOR) stepped up to manage the program. Then, in 2011, Tennessee passed a law permitting a moratorium on refugee resettlement if there were concerns that the state would be unable to meet the healthcare, housing, education, and employment needs of its local residents. This year, state legislators attempted to pass yet another anti-refugee bill (HB 1326/SB 1325) that would require TOR to track the public assistance programs used by refugees and reimburse local governments for the costs of resettlement, such as the expenses to provide refugee children public school education and English language services. In addition to being morally reprehensible, charging a refugee resettlement agency for the costs of public elementary and secondary education for refugees may be a violation of the U.S. Constitution, other federal laws and Tennessee law.
It is important to remember that refugees are among the most vulnerable populations in the world. They have escaped violence and persecution, and come to the U.S. desperate to rebuild their lives. Their contributions strengthen our communities in countless ways, including renewing the values and principles upon which this country was founded. In addition, it is remarkable to note that refugees generally become self-sufficient within eight months of their arrival to the U.S. Moreover, they contribute greatly to state and local economies, often starting their own businesses, creating jobs, and paying tax revenues. Restricting refugees’ access to needed public services during their initial transition only prolongs their economic dependence and prevents full integration.
It is not just good economic policy to welcome refugees, but it is the right thing to do. Jennifer Murphy of the Catholic Public Policy Commission of Tennessee has been working to combat anti-refugee legislation in Tennessee and reiterates the importance of “people understand[ing] who a refugee is, and who we are, and that we do this as a Christian service.” Furthermore, at his recent visit to a Jesuit shelter for refugees in Rome, Pope Francis thanked volunteers for promoting refugees’ fundamental human rights to lodging, legal aid, and employment and confirmed that “integration is a right.” It is my hope that Tennessee lawmakers and public servants in other states will acknowledge refugees’ contributions and pursue policies of integration and inclusion.
*Jennifer Riddle, in her position as State and Local Advocacy Attorney, helps advocates such as Jennifer Murphy in Tennessee by providing legal analysis, data, and talking points on state and local issues. Visit CLINIC’s interactive State and Local Policy Map for more information.