Court Test: State’s Rights vs. Refugee Entitlements
Can states just say “no” to foreign refugees? Tennessee is testing that proposition in federal court.
Like other states, Tennessee experienced a surge in refugee arrivals during the Obama administration, with attendant increases in social-service costs to the state and its localities.
The FAIR study does not break down the costs by state. Nor does it incorporate all the expenses incurred by them. So the $80,000 price tag is necessarily a lowball figure.
Tennessee argues the larger point: The U.S. Constitution does not endow the federal government with unbridled power to direct state spending or interfere with a state’s control over its own budget.
Richard Thompson, attorney with the nonpartisan Thomas More Law Center, asserts, “The federal government commandeered state funds to operate a federal program. In doing so, Tennessee lost its ability to control its own budget and was deprived of its sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment.”
Partial relief is expected as the Trump administration reduces the number of refugees allowed into the country, but reductions in federal refugee assistance over the past two decades have pushed more costs onto state and local governments.
Unlike immigrants who are expected to be self-sufficient from the moment they arrive here, refugee resettlement is a humanitarian policy and we expect that there will be fiscal costs. These significant costs limit the number of people who can be resettled, and force us to consider how we can use limited resources to protect the greatest number of people.
Refugees are eligible for a broad range of state-based welfare benefits, including housing assistance for as long as they reside in the United States. Education expenses, fueled by cost-intensive English Language Learner and special ed programs, are funded primarily by state and local taxpayers.
Meantime, refugees pay only a fraction of their costs. FAIR estimates the average state and local income tax contribution per working refugee at barely $4,200 over five years. One in six adult refugees declare no income.
The Volunteer State tried to get out of this lopsided arrangement in 2007. Washington responded by threatening to withhold federal Medicaid funding (20 percent of the state’s budget). Then the U.S. State Department “privatized” the refugee program, allowing Catholic Charities to circumvent state and local authority in Tennessee.
“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,” the Tennessee lawsuit argues.
Tennessee is asking a federal court to rein in federal power and uphold what’s left of the Tenth Amendment.
Failing that, President Trump could revoke the Clinton-era order (45 CFR 400.301) that empowers resettlement contractors like Catholic Charities to continue operations in states that opt out of the refugee program. States are supposed to be consulted on refugee resettlement matters for a reason. It is time for the federal government to listen to their voices.