NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell on Wednesday praised President Donald Trump's decision to end an Obama-era program that protects as many as 800,000 young undocumented immigrants, including 8,000 in Tennessee, from deportation.
"I think President Trump is taking a stand that was what he campaigned on, and I think he's living up to his promise to the American people," said Harwell, who is running for governor.
Harwell responded to reporters' questions after the final meeting of the Nashville speaker's Ad Hoc Task Force on Opioid Abuse in which a bipartisan group of lawmakers under her direction adopted recommendations she hopes to press as legislation in the General Assembly next year.
On Tuesday, Trump administration officials announced the president would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months, giving the GOP-controlled Congress a half year to act to preserve the program created by then-President Barack Obama through executive order.
The DACA program provides protection from deportation to young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children if they undergo criminal background checks, among other steps.
Asked whether she approved of Trump's action, Harwell said, "I do. I think the former president, Obama, overstretched, and I thought it was unconstitutional what he did. And I commend the president for reining it back in."
As for the potential impact on DACA enrollees now living in Tennessee, Harwell said, "they're allowed to attend our universities currently, and they are. They're just not given in-state tuition."
"We'll see what Congress does," Harwell said.
"I mean, what the president's done is throw it into the laps of Congress, which is where it belongs," said the speaker, whose GOP gubernatorial rivals include a congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin.
"And," Harwell noted, "he's given them six months back and let's hope — for once — they [Congress] can do something, get something accomplished."
In 2015, Tennessee efforts to allow DACA enrollees to pay in-state tuition to attend state public colleges and universities passed the state Senate, but the bill failed in the House by a single vote.
Harwell, who had not been inside the chamber at the time, missed that vote. But she told reporters afterward that she would have voted against the legislation had she been inside the chamber.
The speaker, meanwhile, said in response to another question from reporters that she concurs with last week's Tennessee Capitol Commission decision to reject efforts by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's administration to remove the bust of Confederate Cavalry Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest from its honored perch in the state Capitol.
Haslam said that given Forrest's divisive history — he made his pre-Civil War living in part through slave trading and after the war became an early Ku Klux Klan leader — the bust was better suited to a museum than the Capitol.
"I respect the Tennessee Historical Commission's decision and I'll abide by it," said Harwell, evidently confusing the historical commission with the capitol commission. "I agree with the Tennessee Historical Commission's decision."
Had the Capitol Commission agreed with the governor's efforts, the matter would have then gone to the Historical Commission.
But Haslam's efforts foundered last week in a 7-5 vote with two Republican legislators and the state comptroller, treasurer and secretary of state, all appointed by the Republican General Assembly, among those voting no to removing Forrest's bust.
On the national level, controversies over the honoring of Confederate figures in public spaces have soared after clashes in Charlottesville, Va., where a woman was killed by a protester associated with white supremacist groups demonstrating in support of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.
This story was updated Sept. 6 at 11:59 p.m.