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County officials met to discuss a resolution to reject relocation of refugees in Coffee County.

Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell and County Attorney Robert Huskey joined the Legislative Committee Jan. 27 to discuss the resolution that would reject refugees to be relocated to the county.

The resolution came about when Governor Bill Lee wrote a letter to announce his consent to allow refugee settlement in Tennessee in response to President Trump’s executive order.

The executive order allows the federal government to resettle refugees in specific areas only if state and local governments agree to accept refugees.

“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, particularly those suffering religious persecution,” Lee said. “My administration has worked extensively to determine the best outcome for Tennessee, and I will consent to working with President Trump and his administration to responsibly resettle refugees.”

The resolution under consideration by the Coffee County Commission, says the county feels uncomfortable about accepting the governor’s plan due to a lack of specifics, requirements or conditions. The resolution being discussed by legislative committee says Coffee County will decline from participation in relocating refugees.

Commissioner Helen Debellis said she wanted to make a motion to postpone the resolution to have more time to investigate it. Commissioner Michael Ray said they, the committee, received a document from Cordell’s office that is from the Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) and he wanted Cordell to explain a few lines in the document to the committee and attendees.

The TCSA report said if the county was not contacted by a specific agency to accept refugees then there is nothing the county needs to do. Under the executive order, the county can only opt-in or consent into receiving refugees. 

Ray asked Cordell if the county has been contacted to accept refugees and he said no. Ray then asked if Cordell has ever received a request to take in refugees as long as he’s been county mayor and he said he hasn’t to his knowledge. When asked if he would agree to opt-in, Cordell said if the county commission wanted to, then he would.

County attorney Robert Huskey said he contacted the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) and they sent him a copy of the President’s executive order and a copy of the state’s response to the order. Huskey said Governor Bill Lee’s letter was open ended and it didn’t have any limitations. 

“So, to eliminate any question in light to the kind of open-ended letter that the governor did, I drafted a resolution saying because of the lack of specificity of the acceptance by the governor, we would like to decline until some specificity could be established and we would reserve the right to opt-in after we saw the particulars,” said Huskey.

Commissioner Rosemary Crabtree asked Huskey if the executive order is under scrutiny and frozen for the time being. Crabtree referred to a federal judge in Maryland who temporarily blocked the executive order. Huskey said it is being addressed in the courts and it was mentioned in Lee’s letter complimenting the President’s order. 

Huskey said the point of the resolution is to say that Coffee County wants to opt-out until specific details are added to the order. At that point, the county will reconsider. Huskey acknowledged that the federal government could override the county government legislative decision but the resolution made clear the county understands this and is willing to talk to the state about it. 

Debellis said she doesn’t want to make state officials mad with the resolution without making sure they have all their facts together. “I don’t want to make the hand that feeds me mad,” said Debellis.

The motion to postpone the resolution to the February meeting was passed.

With a larger than normal attendance, the legislative committee then opened the floor to public comment. Several residents took a moment to praise Lee and Trump for their decisions regarding refugees. 

State Refugee Coordinator Holly Johnson came to the meeting and said she wanted to provide information and answer questions. The committee welcomed Johnson to provide more information for them.

Johnson first defined the term “refugee” as she said it’s a term that’s been thrown around.

 “They’re not coming here for a better opportunity. They’re not coming here for economic reasons.  They’re coming here because it’s the last resort. Everybody wants to be home,” said Johnson.

Johnson said the best-case scenario for refugees is to be able to go back home. If not, the second best is to stay in the country they escaped to. The final scenario is, about 1% of all refugees around the world according to Johnson, is eventually settle in a third country. 

Johnson said the vetting process for refugees takes up to 18-24 months to find any problems in background information and medical history and they are in a camp for about 10 years. Once processed, refugees are legal residents and qualify for jobs.

Johnson said the refugees do not get a choice to where they go as that’s chosen for them. She made clear that the U.S. is the strictest of other countries when it comes to taking refugees.

Johnson also cleared up the committee’s question about how the executive order and resolution would work. She said the resettlement agency would have to contact Cordell if they want to settle refugees in Coffee County as by the executive order. 

“The resettlement agency contacts the county mayor and asks for his approval. Whatever his process is we don’t mandate, that’s our point person,” said Johnson.

Johnson said they haven’t contacted Cordell about settling refugees and according to their data, there hasn’t been refugees settled in Coffee County for over 12 years.

Debellis asked Johnson how does the agency’s work and where are they located. Johnson said there are five agencies in four counties in the state: two in Nashville, one in Chattanooga, one in Memphis and one in Knoxville. She said refugees go through those agencies and are located as close to the office as possible. 

“I left my office 2:45 in Nashville and I walked through the door here at 5:15. No one is placing refugees in Coffee County because that’s every day, making that drive back and forth,” said Johnson.

When asked if anyone crossing the border is claiming to be refugees or trying to do so, Johnson said they can file to be a refugee but most of them are not qualified to be a refugee by definition.

“Until you’ve gone through that vetting process, you’re not officially given that status. If there is any question at all they are not coming to US,” said Johnson.

The next legislative committee meeting will be Feb. 24.

Kyle Murphy may be reached at kmurphy@tullahomanews.com.

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