NASHVILLE -- Local jails would be required to check whether arrestees brought to them are legally in the United States under a bill debated Monday in the Senate.
The bill originally excluded at least 20 counties, including Hamilton and Marion counties. But senators on Monday added an amendment by Sen. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, that would apply the measure statewide.
The bill also would direct the state's Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to set up specific training guidelines.
"It gives us consistency across the state of the manner in which this is going to be applied," said Sen. Black, who is running for the GOP's 6th Congressional District nomination.
She said her amendment is intended to resolve concerns from sheriffs.
The move came after more than a week of attacks by one of her GOP primary opponents, Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, who has accused her of being soft on illegal immigration because she voted to exclude two of her counties from the bill's provisions.
State immigration advocates, however, say the Legislature is taking the wrong tack on the problem.
"We all agree we need to do something about our broken immigration system, but this bill is the wrong approach," said Elias Feghali, spokesman of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
"By requiring jailers in Tennessee to assume the duties of federal immigration officials, yet providing no training or funding for local law enforcement, we are going to create the perfect recipe for disaster," he said.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said the county jail already has a system for checking immigration in place, "so it's not going to mean anything to us."
As part of system upgrades more than six months ago, the department included software that automatically notifies federal agencies if citizenship cannot be verified when a person is being booked into the jail, Sheriff Hammond said.
Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble's department is part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Criminal Alien Program, which facilitates information-sharing between ICE and the department. Jailers can send data to ICE agents, who will then process it through their database. If the person's citizenship cannot be verified or is confirmed as illegal status then ICE places a hold on the suspect.
Once an inmate completes his or her sentence for violation of state law, the jail can hold them for 48 hours until ICE agents pick them up to begin the deportation process, Sheriff Gobble said.
Since 2007, the sheriff said more than 206 inmates have been deported through the program.
"Basically, we're already doing what the state Legislature it mandating," he said.
Staff writers Todd South and Perla Trevizo contributed to this story.
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