Gov. Phil Bredesen said he thought “long and hard” about whether to endorse a controversial piece of immigration legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly this past session. But ultimately he made a “judgment call” and signed the bill.
Bredesen repeatedly used the phrase “throwing gasoline on the fire” during a press conference Tuesday to describe the political hot potato immigration issues have become.
However, the governor said he believes this bill, HB670, is not especially harmful in his view.
The bill requires local law enforcement officials to take steps to verify the citizenship status of individuals who are detained and report to federal authorities when they find someone who may be in the country illegally.
Specifically, the bill calls for the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to establish a standard written procedure for verifying citizenship and report those who may be in violation of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Act. The legislature approved the bill after a conference committee produced a measure following lengthy debate.
Bredesen said the decision for him came down to two matters. He said the process of proving citizenship is not unreasonable and that the bill only reinforces the principle behind efforts already in place in major cities in the state that he has supported.
The bill had drawn objection from organizations as divergent as civil liberties groups who are concerned about racial profiling and local police who don’t want to be burdened by having to enforce federal law.
“Symbolically, I didn’t like it,” Bredesen said of the bill. “I didn’t think it was necessary. There’s nothing in that bill that sheriffs can’t do today if they want to do. I didn’t think it was unreasonable. I think it would just be throwing gasoline on the fire to veto it, and I did what I thought was best.”
The governor drew on his personal experience from when he lived for awhile in England. If he had been arrested for something there, he said it would have been reasonable for a police officer to ask to see his passport or visa. He said that while he is very sensitive about such issues, it is not an unreasonable set of requests to ask for the verification.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee had written to Bredesen in opposition to the bill, saying the legislation “effectively creates a police state by requiring individuals (ie., all Latino residents and others who look and sound foreign) to carry documentation at all times so that they can prove they are in this country legally in case they are arrested.”
The ACLU letter also said requiring local authorities to conduct the process “is a recipe for racial profiling.”
The issue has grown in Tennessee in recent years as immigration has soared, including illegal immigration.
Local law enforcement officers found themselves in position of releasing detainees who would re-offend and have members of the public ask why illegal immigrants who had been in custody were released. Efforts to establish new ties with federal authorities ensued to help identify illegal immigrants, but the matter has always been subject to resources to handle the job properly.
Bredesen said he was aware of the political ramifications of the issue in an election year.
“In the end, if it was something I thought was truly unreasonable, I would have vetoed it, but when I looked at it and said, look, it’s what the big four are already doing, it’s something every sheriff can do today if they want to, there’s nothing about that they can’t do today, why throw gasoline on the fire? I really believe this whole thing has got to be dampened.”
He added that he had said as much recently in a speech to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce regarding issues such as English-only.
“We’ve got to grow beyond this stuff that’s going to really hurt us,” Bredesen said. “It was a judgment call.”
Asked if he had considered allowing the bill to become law without his signature, which is an option for a governor, Bredesen said he has “done that once in a while.”
“I always feel badly about doing that,” Bredesen said, adding that when the issue is a resolution instead of a bill, his signature doesn’t much matter.
“This is one I thought I should step up to,” said the governor. “I think you will find on almost all the bills, I have stepped up to either sign or veto, just because that’s pretty much my job.”