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Committee votes ‘non-consent’ to refugee resettlement

Committee members Greg Matherly, Jodi Jones and Danny Edens work through the discussion on refugee resettlement in Washington County. (Photo by Marina Waters)

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

The Washington County Health Education and Welfare Committee approved a resolution of non-consent regarding refugee resettlement in the county.

In a 3-2 vote on Thursday, March 5, the county committee approved the resolution that could send the message to state legislators that Washington County does not want to accept refugees, should the full commission adopt the resolution at its next meeting on Monday, March 23. Commissioners Danny Edens, Steve Light and Suzy Williams voted in favor of the resolution. Commissioners Jodi Jones and Greg Matherly voted in opposition.

The resolution was brought to the committee by Anita Hodges Taylor, the Republican state executive committeewoman for District 3, after first requesting the county consider the resolution at the HEW Committee’s Feb. 6 meeting.

“I think we need to think about our Tennessee residents first.” Taylor said.

On Dec. 18, Gov. Bill Lee announced that Tennessee will continue to accept refugees after President Donald Trump’s September executive order allowing local and state governments to decide whether or not to accept refugee resettlement within its communities.

At the March 5 meeting, County Attorney Allyson Wilkinson explained to the committee that the President determines number of refugees that are allowed into the country in a year. During Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year as president, the U.S. accepted around 85,000 refugees. During President Donald Trump’s first full fiscal year, the cap was set at 45,000 refugees and has since been reduced.

On Monday, Feb. 24, the county HEW and budget committees met with Drocella Mugorewera, the executive director of Bridge Refugee Services in Knoxville. Mugorewera said about 2% of refugees in America come to Tennessee. She also said Washington County has seen 19 refugees and has only added four since 2012. The county now only has 15 refugees and the majority of Tennessee’s refugees go to Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville or Memphis, Mugorewera said.

For Danny Edens, it was less about state law and more about an opinion.

“A resolution sent to a county committee has to be approved by the full commission before we can go forward,” Edens said. “If it’s approved by the full commission, it would be sent as an opinion of this county, one county out of all counties of the state. It would just be our opinion to the governor. The governor may get one from every county feeling different ways. So I don’t think we’re talking about law here. It’s an opinion.”

At the Feb. 24 meeting, Mugorewera explained to commissioners that the refugees Bridge Refugee Services work with have been screened and are here legally. That includes asylees or people who have claimed asylum, and special immigrant visa holders who are in danger after serving the U.S. military in Iraq or Afghanistan. 

Mugorewera also said refugees are aided in enrolling in schools, housing and are given medical insurance. At both the Feb. 24 and March 5 meetings, Williams said she felt local citizens should be the focus, especially when it comes to resources like healthcare.

“What has bothered me is (refugees) come in and are prioritized over local citizens,” Williams said. “They get money for apartments, food, healthcare, on and on. The lady that was here was certainly a wonderful success story of a refugee coming in and getting a green card and getting her citizenship. But not all are like that. I just don’t think we should be forced to take refugees. But we haven’t been getting many because they all go to Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville or Memphis.

“I’m going to vote yes because (of the idea of) absorbing refugees over our local citizens who have been brought up here.”

Meanwhile, Jones said she felt that was not the message she wanted to send to Gov. Bill Lee.

“We should be very thoughtful about the messages we send to Gov. Lee,” Jones said. “We should communicate with him very carefully and intentionally about the important projects that are going on in our community.”

Edens reminded the crowd that the commission, which will meet on Monday, March 23, at 6 p.m. at the George Jaynes Justice Center in Jonesborough will have a sign-up sheet available for public comment regarding items the commission will consider, such as the refugee resolution. 

To view the meeting’s agenda and for more information, go to http://www.washingtoncountytn.org/.