Republicans in the Tennessee General Assembly are bragging on their accomplishments in immigration reform — especially about a unique approach to the E-Verify hiring system — but what could be ripe for debate is the list of immigration bills they’re ready to push next year.
Lawmakers say they intend to pursue legislation beginning in January on immigration enforcement at the state level (SB0780), denying state taxpayer benefits to illegal aliens (HB1379), an English-only driver’s license process (SB0010) and, in what may be a highly volatile issue, an effort (HB0751) to seek clarification on whether a child born here to illegal aliens should be considered a citizen, as has generally been the practice.
Legislators are trumpeting their accomplishments in this year’s session not only on the successful E-Verify plan and the material support bill to fight “homegrown terrorism” but a lesser-known bill meant to address issues related to legal refugees who come into the state.
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition has issued a detailed report on the Legislature’s efforts on immigration this year, including continued warnings about each of the bills that didn’t pass. The group claims success in holding the line on “Arizona copycat legislation,” but it remains aware of states’ individual efforts at enacting immigration reforms.
“Given the many challenges this session, the increase in anti-immigrant legislation across the Southeast and the continued failure of Congress to overhaul our legal immigration system, it’s clear that our struggle is far from over,” the organization said.
Judging from Tennessee legislators’ plans for 2012, including legislation on the “Arizona copycat” matter, where legislators demand state law enforcement officers check the immigration status of people they stop, advocates for immigrants do appear to have more battles ahead.
Immigrant rights groups have begun to challenge such laws in courts in other states.
Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, one of the most adamant proponents of immigration legislation in the state, has said he will try to get an enforcement bill passed next year.
“We waited to see what Georgia was doing, what Alabama was doing, and we’re going to tweak our bill,” Ketron said. “We’re going to come back with a vengeance, and thank goodness the Supreme Court ruled the way they did just a few weeks ago on that issue.
The high court dealt strictly with an employment issue, upholding Arizona’s law penalizing businesses that hire illegal immigrants, lending strength to states that want to use the federal E-Verify identity system. There is debate, however, as to how far the court might go in other areas of enforcement, such as checking papers. The court ruling, nevertheless, was a sign that states may be allowed to act on immigration enforcement where the federal government has not acted.
“We’re going to bring that bill hot and heavy,” Ketron said. “It’s going to be the best bill passed so far.”
Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, carried the E-Verify legislation passed in Tennessee this year, along with Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas. The system, run by the federal Department of Homeland Security, checks the eligibility status of workers through an Internet database. More than 225,000 employers use E-Verify, but it is mostly voluntary, unless state governments require it. Tennessee now requires it, although the law allows for use of a worker’s driver’s license.
Both Tracy and Carr believe the state has an advantage over other states with E-Verify laws.
Their optimism comes from the fact Tennessee will implement its law though the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which already has purview over issues related to worker’s comp, unemployment insurance and labor standards such as child employment. The department handles the Illegal Alien Employment Act passed in 2007, so the belief is that the department can bring the most effective form of enforcement on E-Verify.
“It’s much harder for the district attorneys to do, because they don’t have the money or the wherewithal to do it,” Tracy said.
“Every other state uses the D.A.’s office as the sole means by which to initiate the prosecution,” Carr said. “We didn’t want to do that, not only because it comes up pretty close against the line of challenging the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. What we did was we said, ‘Fine, we will make it an administrative issue.’”
The labor department will not enforce whether or not an employer has hired an illegal alien. It will only enforce the issue of whether the business is participating in E-Verify. The new state law requires participation and, in fact, holds harmless the employers who use the system if a worker is later found to be an illegal immigrant.
“Participation in E-Verify doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not they hired an illegal,” Carr said. “That’s a totally different statute.”
Then there is the refugee issue. Tracy has expressed concern about a program where the federal Department of State is sending refugees — often from countries prone to civil wars — into U.S. communities, working through Catholic Charities. The new law calls for the organization bringing in the refugees to meet with community leaders beforehand to let them know how many are coming so communities can prepare and calls for quarterly reports to community leaders and to the state.
“They’re legal refugees,” Tracy said.
“Especially in small communities it has a big impact, in housing, schools, hospitals, medical care. The community cannot stop them from coming, but it can be prepared for them.”
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition calls the effort an “unprecedented attack on refugees.”
“New laws should encourage effective communication between refugee groups, refugee settlement agencies and receiving communities, but not create a hostile environment for refugee families who have come to Tennessee to escape persecution, find honest work and begin rebuilding their lives,” the group said.
Carr wants to test the courts on so-called “anchor babies,” children born in the United States whose parents are illegal immigrants.
The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
Carr points to the comma.
“There are five words: ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof.’ The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the legality of an anchor baby or a child born to parents who both are illegal in the United States. Never ruled on that,” Carr said.
“We’ve got a bill already filed and written. The point is to get the Supreme Court to initiate a ruling. Is a child born in the United States whose parents both are illegal a naturalized citizen? I think we need a determination of that because we all know there is a significant element that’s taking advantage of our laws. And all the interpretation is that it’s an administrative procedure that’s being wrongly interpreted as described in the 14th Amendment.”
Carr is also working on an initiative known as the SAVE bill, for Systematic Alien for Entitlements Program, where agencies granting benefits receive help determining an applicant’s immigration status. The bill’s intent is to prevent taxpayer benefits from going to illegal aliens. Carr said Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick have said it will be a Republican caucus position. He also said Gov. Bill Haslam has said he will fund the bill.
“That’s a huge commitment. We’re going to get that bill passed,” Carr said.
Ketron has tried for years to get a bill through that required the written test for a driver’s license to be in English.
“It’s a safety bill,” he said. “We welcome anybody who wants to come to this country, no matter what color you are or what country you come from. You’re welcome to come to this country. If you come here, live by our laws and speak the English language first.”
Republicans hold a 64-34-1 majority in the House and a 20-13 majority in the Senate. One notable factor involving immigration bills, however, is Haslam, who has questioned whether some measures in the past present Tennessee as a welcoming state.