Tennessee takes major first step to regain some local control of refugee resettlement process

We have been writing about this problem for years and questioning why the US State Department and its contractors are not required to take the wishes of local communities into consideration when distributing refugees throughout the country.

Fed up the lack of any state or local control over the refugee resettlement process in Tennessee, two women have led the initiative, now signed into law by the governor of Tennessee, that would begin to give some power to decide how many refugees may be resettled to local communities back to local governments.  We told you about this bill introduced by State Senator Jim Tracy, whose district includes Shelbyville, here, in February.   (For new readers, Shelbyville archive is here.)

The first law of its kind in the US

The Tennessee Eagle Forum led the legislative push with help from members of ACT for America.

Here is a summary (written by one of the activists involved in its passage) of the Tennessee Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act:

The “Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act” passed overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate with bi-partisan support and is the first of its kind to be passed in any state. [The governor has signed the bill into law—ed]

The federal refugee resettlement program is not particularly well understood nor is its impact on local “host” communities either well documented or even publicized. However, as state and local budgets become more challenging to constrain, combined with local economies and unemployment statistics, the issue of whether a particular community can absorb and provide for new refugees, is a very timely issue. The objectives of the Tennessee RACA bill are especially relevant for states like Tennessee, which in 2007 withdrew from administering the federal program, and opted to allow Catholic Charities as the fiduciary agency, administrate the state’s refugee program.

The change-over in 2007 inadvertently created a communication gap at both the state and local level which has been addressed by the RACA with a requirement for quarterly reporting to the relevant legislative committees and to the local city council budget chairman.

Within 30 days of arriving in the U.S., local resettlement agencies assist new refugees in applying for all public entitlement and benefit programs. The resettlement agencies also assist with such necessities as housing, securing employment and medical care. While the initial 4 months of resettlement are funded with federal dollars, subsequent sources of support may need to come from state and local resources.

The RACA, consistent with federal regulations, articulates the factors that are supposed to be assessed to determine local “absorptive capacity” and goes on to require that the “absorptive capacity” is evaluated at regular intervals in consultation between local governments and local resettlement agencies before commitments are made for refugee resettlement in any particular community.

It has been unclear in the past whether the local authorities responsible for addressing local budgetary allocation and needs, have been included in the consultative process. Assuring their active participation in this process helps to ensure that commitments made on behalf of a host community by the agency contracting with the federal government who in turn contracts with the local affiliate resettlement agencies, are commitments that the host community can fulfill.

The RACA also incorporates in a slightly modified model, a recommendation that has been made repeatedly by the National Governor’s Association and more recently in a hearing by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the refugee resettlement program. The RACA provides that a local city council or other local governing body, may pass a resolution establishing that based on the “absorptive capacity” factors in the bill the community cannot absorb new refugees and may thereby request a one year moratorium on new refugee resettlement in that community.

Also, please see this one  page fact sheet at the Tennessee Eagle Forum website.

Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana (a state suffering under refugee overload especially in Ft. Wayne) authored a major report on this same issue—absorptive capacity—here last summer.

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