NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Lee cautioned members of his own party Tuesday not to fall prey to “misinformation” about refugees — an oppressed group he stressed are not “illegal immigrants.”
Lee decided last month to keep accepting refugees in Tennessee, declining an offer by President Donald Trump’s administration that lets states and local governments stop resettling them. The decision put him at odds with segments of the GOP in Tennessee, where Republican state lawmakers have sued the federal government over the refugee resettlement program.
Tuesday’s discussion at a GOP group’s Nashville luncheon drew some grumbling about his refugee decision. Lee responded with his loudest defense of his choice to date.
“My wife has worked with a group called Servant Group International that works with Kurdish refugees that live in Nashville. The women group that she works with are mostly women whose husbands were killed because they served as interpreters for American soldiers alongside the American military when we fought in Iraq. And their husbands died as a result of working with Americans. I’m not turning my back on those people,” Lee said .
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. Trump has limited the number of refugees taken in to no more than 18,000 in fiscal year 2020.
Lee began his defense when he faced a question about the “immigration factor, about people coming to Tennessee,” and Lee’s “opportunity to say yes, bring them, or no, don’t.”
The governor, who based his decision in part on his Christian faith and own service abroad and at home with refugees, sought to correct the line of questioning.
“When people talk about refugees, they’re not talking about illegal immigrants. Those are very different things,” Lee said. “We need to have a very clear understanding of that. When you start talking about this topic, you need to be informed about the difference between illegal immigration and legal refugee settlement.”
He said he personally has a “biblical mandate” to provide opportunity for those oppressed people.
Lee contended that Republican governors have consented to keep accepting refugees “because if we don’t engage in the process, then we have no control over it whatsoever.” That comment drew a response from someone in the crowd: “You can say no, sir.” Shortly later, she interjected again with her summary of the Trump order.
Lee’s voice rose noticeably as he responded that if people want to come to Tennessee, they can resettle in another state and move “and we will not know who they are, we will not have any way to engage in their assimilation, and we will have no control over this process.”
“And you may like not having control over who comes into this state, but I don’t,” Lee continued, directing his response to the person after she offered the second comment. “I want to be engaged in this process. There is a right way to do this. And turning our backs to the process altogether is the wrong way to do it.”