A hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol was jam-packed with people on both sides of an emotional political issue: refugee resettlement and what it costs taxpayers.
Last year, Tennessee accepted just over 1,200 refugees from all over the world, according to government statistics. Now, a new legislative subcommittee is asking if the federal government should be shifting that cost to Tennessee taxpayers.
"It raises the issue whether the state or Congress should pay the costs of the federal program," said Joanne Bregman, with the group Eagle Forum.
Bregman wants to know the hidden costs to Tennessee when refugees get food stamps, welfare, public housing and TennCare medical benefits for the first few months while they're here.
Nobody knows the exact figure, but the federal government does send the state about $9 million to support new refugees through Catholic Charities.
The Eagle Forum asked its members to pack the committee room Wednesday to support asking the state to calculate the cost of refugee resettlement.
"We would also like people who immigrate to be people that will be supportive and helpful to the American way - traditional American values, if you will," said Jerry Anderson, of Winchester.
Kurdish refugees founded the restaurant House of Kabob on Thompson Lane in the 1990s. Family member Kasar Abdullah says refugees like herself work hard, succeed and become taxpaying members of society.
"Let's do look at the direct and indirect costs of this program, but let's not dismiss the benefits and contributions to our economy," Abdullah said.
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition also believes the committee needs to see the big picture.
"How many refugees come and start small businesses and employ U.S.-born Tennesseans and add to the tax base? It seemed like the legislators - the committee - had blinders on today," said Stephen Fotopulos, with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
The state made a major change to its refugee resettlement program in 2008, under former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
The state government bowed out of having oversight of the program, and that's when Catholic Charities took over under a contract with the federal government.
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