Faith, service drive Tennessee gov to keep taking refugees
NASHVILLE, TN – Fartun Abdi last saw her father face-to-face when she was about 1 year old living in Somalia, just before her family separated to flee fighting in the country.
For most of her life, she wasn't sure her father was alive.
Now a mother of five, Abdi lives in Nashville and works with the Catholic Charities of Tennessee, helping refugees like herself make new homes in America. The future of those efforts was uncertain until Wednesday, when Republican Gov. Bill Lee pointed to his own faith when he rejected anofferby President Donald Trump's administration to let states halt resettlement.
Abdi found out her father was alive five years ago, and he and several of her siblings remain in Africa amid Trump's tightened immigration restrictions. Those include substantially lower caps on refugees and a travel ban that blocks citizens of five Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia, and their immediate families from traveling or immigrating to the United States.
Lee's decision doesn't dissolve those hurdles to make it to the U.S. as refugees. But Abdi, who said she prayed over Lee's refugee decision, said she now knows he was listening to her community.
“I'm speechless and very happy with the outcome," said Abdi, who said she voted for Lee in 2018. "We are happy that Gov. Lee listened and heard the concerns and wishes of refugees. We are glad to have Lee as our governor.”
Lee's decision put him at odds with top Republicans in the Legislature, who had sued the federal government over its refugee resettlement program and hoped Lee would accept Trump's offer. Acknowledging pressure from fellow Republicans, Lee put a time limit on his initial approval, saying it was only valid for a year. He even said he supports the lawsuit effort.
“I certainly know there’s disagreement on this subject, but there’s disagreement around most subjects,” Lee told reporters Wednesday. “You agree to disagree and move forward. But I think it’s the right decision and we’re moving forward on it.”
So far, no states have said they plan to reject refugees. About half the states have given written consent to continue resettling refugees.
In September, Trump slashed the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. and authorized state and local governments to refuse to accept them. An executive order says that if a state or a locality has not consented to receive refugees under the State Department's Reception and Placement Program, then refugees should not be resettled within the state or locality unless the secretary of state decides otherwise.
Some resettlement groups have sued to block Trump's order.
If a state opts out under Trump's order, refugees could still move there, but they'd miss out on key aid. For example, they wouldn't get funding for medical assistance and screenings, employment, social adjustment services and English language training.
More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Tennessee during the 2016 budget year. That number dropped to 478 in 2018 under Trump and and has hit 692 in 2019.
In the wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, lawmakers forged ahead with their lawsuit over the refugee program with the help of a third-party legal outfit, since Attorney General Herbert Slatery declined to take the case. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected the lawsuit, which claims the program improperly forces the state to spend money on additional services for refugees, including health care and education. Lawmakers haven't said whether they'll ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Senate Speaker Randy McNally said Wednesday they would've preferred to “hit the pause button on accepting additional refugees in our state.”
Lee took office in January after a rough GOP primary in which he and his opponents echoed Trump's tough talk on immigration.
He also went to great lengths to bring up his Christian faith while campaigning. He invoked his beliefs again in his refugee decision.
"The United States and Tennessee have always been, since the very founding of our nation, a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, and particularly those suffering religious persecution," Lee wrote to the legislative leaders. “My commitment to these ideals is based on my faith, personally visiting refugee camps on multiple continents, and my years of experience ministering to refugees here in Tennessee.”
Advocates have said the program includes rigorous vetting and introduces refugees as reliable members of the workforce.
Abdi spent three years in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child, then came to the U.S. with her mother and two step-siblings. She had been living here for years when she found out that her father was alive in 2014. She said she made the discovery when she saw a man who resembled her in a video, then made calls until she confirmed it. She's since talked with him on video chats.
Abdi said she might be a stronger person for making her own way in the United States. But at some point, everyone needs family, she said.
“There are certain times when my father would say, ‘I wish I could just hold one of my grand-kids,’” Abdi said. "Certain things like that get to me."
Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Julie Watson in San Diego and Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.
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