U.S. official discusses refugee bill with Tracy

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A top representative of the U.S. State Department was in Tennessee this week to discuss a law dealing with the state's refugee resettlement program.

The Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act, which originated from the desk of State Sen. Jim Tracy, became law last July. It's the first bill of its kind.

It requires the state's refugee program agency, Catholic Charities, to meet four times a year with local governments to plan and coordinate "the appropriate placement of refugees in advance of the refugees' arrival ..."

The law also allows local communities to apply for a "moratorium" on refugee resettlement if those agencies overload local resources, and so far, Tennessee is the only state that has passed this type of legislation.

A number of refugees from a variety of countries, such as Somalia, Burma and Egypt, have moved to Shelbyville in recent years to be closer to jobs at the Tyson Foods facility.

Attention received

On Wednesday, David Robinson, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, met with Tracy and other parties to discuss the law passed last year, the state senator told the T-G.

"That was the whole purpose of the visit, and they thought the bill was fine," Tracy said, but he added that even though provisions in the new state refugee law passed last year was already codified in federal law, it had not been enforced.

"If you are going to bring refugees into a community, you need to meet with community leaders, mayor, councilmen, commissioners, school superintendents, hospitals, anyone that an influx of a refugee group would affect," Tracy said, explaining the reasons for the law being passed last year.

Tracy said that the State Department representatives had no problems with the law and were complimenting them on the bill, but Tracy said he "thought it was interesting that we had to codify something in state law to get their attention."

The senator said that Robinson wanted to explain how the refugee program worked, where they came from, why they were being taken in and how they are pre-approved in their home countries before moving here.


Tracy explained he also had questions for Robinson, talking about the local unemployment rate and about refugees getting on state assisted benefits, while the State Department discussed "sustainability" of the refugees. Supposedly, the refugees have 90 days to become sustainable in this country, Tracy said.

"The question we had for them was 'what's the definition of sustainability,'" Tracy said. "We had a good discussion about it."

The number of refugees entering America fell in 2011 due to the economy and unemployment rate, Tracy said that Robinson reported. According to the Bureau of Population, Refugees, Migration, more than 56,000 from 69 countries were resettled in the U.S. during fiscal 2011.

The largest refugee groups are Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis, Somalians, followed by people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, Columbia, Sudan, Vietnam and Eritrea, according to a fact sheet from the State Department.

Robinson was also quoted in published reports this week as saying that refugees were migrants who have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group and are brought here legally. He said that many people often associate refugees with illegal immigrants.

High level

Robinson also said that the State Department was still responding to recommendations from a 2010 Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report, entitled "Abandoned Upon Arrival," which stated that refugees were arriving in cities that weren't prepared for them.

"It was a pretty high level meeting," Tracy said. "They were very concerned who was going to be in the meeting, it was very interesting."

Tracy said that the State Department wanted to clarify that they had no control over secondary migration, when refugees leave the city they were initially settled in and go elsewhere.

The senator said that's why the law is "so important, because we're bringing refugees into Tennessee, the majority of them settle in Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis and Chattanooga," but they eventually migrate to smaller towns.

After the law was passed last year, it was criticized by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, who called it the "Refugees Not Welcome Act."

The group said that they were "concerned that it will encourage local governments to pass symbolic resolutions to discourage further refugee resettlement."

"It was interesting that they (the State Department) would travel to Tennessee to talk about the legislation that we passed last year and I really take it as a compliment," Tracy said Friday. "I think they were already supposed to be doing that, and in Tennessee, they have to be doing that now."