Tennessee's largest county to keep welcoming refugees

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The mayor of Tennessee’s largest county on Friday reaffirmed its commitment to welcome refugees, amid a drop in the number of people who are coming to the Memphis area as they flee persecution and war in other countries.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris held a ceremonial signing of a letter he sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month stating the county’s desire to keep welcoming refugees from the around the world who, as Harris’ letter says, “embark on arduous and perilous journeys to find safety.”

“We have a moral duty to help those in need, those in dire circumstances,” Harris said during a news conference at his office in downtown Memphis.

The commitment by Harris, a Democrat, follows Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to continue to resettle refugees. Last month, Lee rejected the option offered to states by President Donald Trump’s administration to stop refugee resettlement.

In Tennessee, Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga also have said that they want to keep accepting refugees.

In September, Trump slashed the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. and authorized state and local governments to refuse to accept them. An executive order says that if a state or a locality has not consented to receive refugees under the State Department’s Reception and Placement Program, then refugees should not be resettled within the state or locality unless the secretary of state decides otherwise.

Trump’s order lets local governments decide on refugee resettlement if the state opts in.

More than 2,000 refugees resettled in Tennessee during the 2016 budget year, including 278 in Shelby County, refugee advocates said. The state number dropped to 478 in 2018 under Trump and and hit 692 in 2019.

Last year, only 44 refugees settled in Shelby County, the state’s largest by population, said World Relief Memphis Director P.J. Moore.

That number was down from 56 in 2018, Moore said. The county can handle up to 400 refugees per year, he said.

World Relief Memphis teams with local religious and community groups to resettle refugees.

Moore called the decrease in refugees a “dramatic dropoff” that can be attributed to policies coming out of Washington. Trump has signed off on a plan that continues a dramatic drop in the number of refugees taken in by the U.S. to no more than 18,000 in fiscal year 2020.

In the last full year of the Barack Obama administration, the refugee ceiling was 85,000. In 2019, the Trump administration set the limit at 30,000. That number was the lowest since the modern resettlement program’s creation in 1980.

Harris was joined at the event by refugees from Africa and Asia who have settled in Shelby County.

John Liom, 31, said he came to Memphis from Egypt in 2003, four years after he fled war-torn Sudan as a boy.

Liom learned English, and he became a police officer in 2016. He thanked the Memphis community for welcoming him.

“My dream came true,” Liom said.