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Can States be Forced to Pay for Refugees?

IRLI urges Supreme Court to take case

WASHINGTON – Today the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI) has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court urging it to review a lawsuit brought by the Tennessee General Assembly against the State Department. The suit challenges federal efforts to force Tennessee to pay for refugees the federal government had settled in that state.

During the Obama administration, Tennessee was issued an ultimatum: either pay for Medicaid for the refugees now in your state (an expense that now amounts to $30 million per year) or lose all Medicaid funding from the federal government. Because federal Medicaid funds amount to a hefty percentage of Tennessee’s budget (and far more than $30 million), Tennessee felt compelled to pony up its own state funds for the refugees Obama had decided to settle there.

In response, the Tennessee General Assembly brought suit in federal court, arguing that the ultimatum Obama had issued amounted to federal coercion of Tennessee and commandeering of its resources, in violation of the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Without even reaching that question, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals threw the suit out, holding that, because the General Assembly was distinct from the state of Tennessee itself, it lacked standing to bring the action.

In its brief, IRLI shows that the Sixth Circuit got it wrong: under clear Supreme Court precedent, the General Assembly, to have standing, only had to show some injury to the way it does business. And having to balance a budget that includes an extra $30 million of taxpayer funds every year certainly constitutes such an injury. IRLI also showed that the Court has discretion, at this stage, to take up the issue of whether Tennessee was coerced under the Tenth Amendment.

“For partisan political reasons, the Obama administration had a program of placing large numbers of refugees in states in the heartland, with the ultimate aim of changing the voting patterns of these states,” said Dale L. Wilcox, executive director and general counsel of IRLI. “IRLI rejects this attempt to politicize the refugee program, and supports Tennessee in its fight against it. We hope the Court grants review and decides this important case in the interests both of the states and of the Nation.” 

The case is Tennessee, By and Through the Tennessee General Assembly v. Department of State, No. 19-1137 (Supreme Court).


For additional information, contact:

Brian Lonergan • 202-232-5590 • blonergan@irli.org

IRLI is a supporting organization of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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