2011Tennessee Eagle Forum Legislative Summary

       Once again, Tennessee Eagle Forum Led the Way  With Ground-breaking Legislation

Tennessee legislators passed some very significant bills during this legislative session. Included in this work is the “Material Support to Designated Entities Act of 2011”. As a starting point, this bill provided an important and timely opportunity to educate legislators about the increasing threat from home grown terrorists like Memphian Carlos Bledsoe as well as some of the issues associated with this particular type of threat. The bill, even after being amended, sends a clear message that the Tennessee legislature takes the security of its citizens very seriously. It was ultimately determined that the most fiscally responsible way to achieve the objectives of this anti-terrorism measure was to “fold” the essential elements of the proposed legislation into Tennessee’s existing, albeit somewhat outdated terrorism prevention statute.

Between September 2001 and October 2003, Tennessee along with over 40 other states passed 67 new statutes concerning terrorism. However, as the nature of the threat has evolved, the need to update Tennessee’s statute was recognized. To close the prevention gap of the 2002 statute, a second material support violation was added by the 2011 bill. This provision defers to designations of terrorist entities made by the U.S. Secretary of State (to date approximately 48 foreign terrorist organizations designated), and the Department of the Treasury (to date approximately 547 individuals and entities including 8 charities designated). These designations for example, include the most obvious such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizballah, the Holy Land Foundation and most recently the Army of Islam.

While newly added language affirms the protection for the peaceful practice of any religion but the bill is equally clear in prohibiting the use of any religious doctrine to justify acts of terrorism or the provision of material support. The bill updated several definitions in our existing statute to be consistent with the federal definitions including the definition of “material support”. And finally, the punishment for providing material support was increased to a Class A felony.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate with bi-partisan support. This was a similar case with the “Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act”, (RACA) the first of its kind to be passed in any state.

The federal refugee resettlement program is not particularly well understood nor is its impact on local “host” communities either well documented or even publicized. However, as state and local budgets become more challenging to constrain, combined with local economies and unemployment statistics, the issue of whether a particular community can absorb and provide for new refugees, is a very timely issue. The objectives of the Tennessee RACA bill are especially relevant for states like Tennessee, which in 2007 withdrew from administering the federal program, and opted to allow Catholic Charities as the fiduciary agency, administrate the state’s refugee program.

The change-over in 2007 inadvertently created a communication gap at both the state and local level which has been addressed by the RACA with a requirement for quarterly reporting to the relevant legislative committees and to the local city council budget chairman.

Within 30 days of arriving in the U.S., local resettlement agencies assist new refugees in applying for all public entitlement and benefit programs. The resettlement agencies also assist with such necessities as housing, securing employment and medical care. While the initial 4 months of resettlement are funded with federal dollars, subsequent sources of support may need to come from state and local resources.

The RACA, consistent with federal regulations, articulates the factors that are supposed to be assessed to determine local “absorptive capacity” and goes on to require that the “absorptive capacity” is evaluated at regular intervals in consultation between local governments and local resettlement agencies before commitments are made for refugee resettlement in any particular community.

It has been unclear in the past whether the local authorities responsible for addressing local budgetary allocation and needs, have been included in the consultative process. Assuring their active participation in this process helps to ensure that commitments made on behalf of a host community by the agency contracting with the federal government who in turn contracts with the local affiliate resettlement agencies, are commitments that the host community can fulfill.

The RACA also incorporates in a slightly modified model, a recommendation that has been made repeatedly by the National Governor’s Association and more recently in a hearing by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the refugee resettlement program. The RACA provides that a local city council or other local governing body, may pass a resolution establishing that based on the “absorptive capacity” factors in the bill the community cannot absorb new refugees and may thereby request a one year moratorium on new refugee resettlement in that community.