Outlines of Immigration Debates Taking Shape

In a recent segment of Nashville NewsChannel 5’s Inside Politics, Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Joe Carr said the Legislature will “very likely” adopt a measure that mirrors Arizona’s controversial immigration law, cracking down on undocumented immigrants by checking their legal status at traffic stops.

Hosted by political reporter Pat Nolan, the 30-minute show previewed some of the facets and flashpoints that are likely during 2011 legislative policy deliberations, including the tension between enforcement by the federal government and states’ rights, the lack of detail on how much illegal immigration costs the state of Tennessee and fuzzy projections about how many people are living in the state illegally.

Ketron and Carr, Republicans from Rutherford County, say the key this year will be passing a bill that can meet constitutional muster despite the fact that Arizona’s version of the law is currently tied up in federal courts.

Between taking jobs away from citizens and reaping the benefits of public services like health care and education — as well as taking up space in prisons — immigrants in the state illegally are draining Tennessee’s resources, both Ketron and Carr argued.

“We feel like it’s a big enough issue. The federal government is not going to deal with it,” said Ketron, Senate Republican Caucus chairman. “It’s an issue that creates issues for us at the state level at a time when our budget is really hurting. We’re $1.4 billion in debt.”

However, another guest on the show, Nashville attorney and activist Gregg Ramos, spoke in opposition to an Arizona-style bill and in rebuttal to what he characterized as misinformation being spread about the effects and impacts of illegal immigration.

Ramos pointed to a 2007 study that suggested illegal immigrants living in Tennessee have access to few public services and thus have a limited impact on state government finances.

The study, by then-Comptroller John Morgan, a Democrat who later became Gov. Phil Bredesen’s chief of staff and is now the chancellor for the Tennessee Board of Regents, did indicate those who are incarcerated create a heavier burden on local and state budgets.

Ramos accused Carr and Ketron of blowing any issues of concern that might exist entirely out of proportion. “What these gentlemen have been doing, with all due respect, is magnifying the problem and taking a lot of things out of context,” he said.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, between 100,000 and 160,000 illegal immigrants reside in Tennessee, making up about 2 percent of the state population.

“The fact that they came here illegally and reside here illegally, no matter how you talk about the economics of the issue, it doesn’t deal with the fact that you’ve got a substantial portion of people in the state of Tennessee breaking the law by being here, and that needs to be addressed,” Carr said.

Both lawmakers are expected to support multiple pieces of legislation targeting undocumented immigrants, including a bill that would require that driver’s license exams be administered only in English and another to mandate voters show a photo ID at the ballot box.

Carr is also hinting that he and other lawmakers may press for Tennessee to join other states in challenging or attempting to end “birthright citizenship” under the United States Constitution’s 14th Amendment.