NASHVILLE - Gov. Phil Bredesen said Tuesday he signed a bill requiring local jailers to try and determine the immigration status of prisoners in part to keep the issue from "throwing gasoline on the fire" in this year's political campaigns.
But the governor, a Democrat who is barred by law from seeking a third term, also said that while he doesn't like how the bill is being used "symbolically," he views its requirements as not unreasonable in light of similar local-federal partnerships already under way in the state's four biggest counties.
"I guess you could do it (veto) as a symbolic act, but if you do so you're just throwing it out, you're throwing gasoline on the fire, and now there'll be a whole bunch of political campaigns this fall about 'we're going to toughen up this kind of thing,'" Gov. Bredesen told reporters. "In the end, I didn't think what it did was unreasonable. Symbolically, I didn't like it. I didn't think it was necessary."
He said, however, that "there's nothing in that bill that sheriffs can't do today if they want to."
But immigrant advocates disagree, noting the bill mandates jailers seek to determine the citizenship status of arrestees. The information would be forwarded to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials if the arrestee is in the U.S. illegally or his or her status cannot be verified.
"We are disappointed that Gov. Bredesen declined to show leadership on this incredibly important issue," said Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, adding the state is "left with a terrible piece of legislation that burdens local governments and fails to make our communities safer."
Earlier, this week, Gov. Bredesen, whom advocates urged to veto the bill, acknowledged struggling with whether to sign or veto the measure, pushed by Republicans.
On Tuesday, he recalled living in England during the 1960s, noting that "if I'd been arrested for something in England, I think it would have been reasonable for a police office to look at me and say, 'You know if you're not English, I'd like to see your passport."
Gov. Bredesen said, "I just think we've got, as a state, to get beyond using this whole immigration issue and English-only issues, which I think have nothing to do with immigration. .... We've got to get beyond making political footballs out of that unless we want to really damage our economic future."
During this year's legislative session, lawmakers introduced a flood of immigration-related legislation. When Republican lawmakers pushed through a resolution praising Arizona for its tough new law requiring local police to enforce federal immigration requirements, he called it "meaningless."
But if the governor thinks his signing of the bill will throw a wet blanket on the illegal immigrant debate, he has another thing coming.
"Gov. Bredesen shouldn't have even considered vetoing the bill," said Rachel Taylor, spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican gubernatorial candidate. She said voters "can count on Lt. Governor Ramsey passing a law like Arizona's when he is elected."
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., another GOP gubernatorial hopeful, in a statement called the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, a "good first step, but we need to do more ... If the federal government won't enforce the law, then as governor, I will."
Another GOP candidate, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, said "states must step up and address the issue of illegal immigration, because it's clear the federal government has failed to do its part. ... As governor, I will enforce the laws on the books and will cut off the supply of jobs going to illegal immigrants."
An effort Tuesday evening to contact by e-mail a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter was unsuccessful.
When Gov. Bredesen criticized lawmakers' focus on the Arizona resolution, Mr. McWherter was quoted as saying, "I really think the immigration issue is a federal issue, and what we need is a much better federal policy to protect our borders. It's got to be solved on a federal level."
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