NASHVILLE - Despite some reservations, Gov. Phil Bredesen on Monday signed legislation requiring local jailers to attempt to determine the immigration status of prisoners and forward the information on to federal immigration officials.
"I believe there has been significant political posturing on this issue," Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, said in a statement. "While I do have concerns about this legislation, this bill seeks to set up a verification process similar to what exists in our state's major cities, and I have been supportive of these efforts."
Legislative Republicans touted the measure as a major step forward in combating illegal immigration in Tennessee.
The bill was opposed by immigrant groups and the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ACLU-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg urged the governor to veto the legislation, calling it "un-American."
In a letter, she charged the bill "effectively creates a police state" and also "invites disparate treatment of minority groups, and encourages racial profiling" - assertions rejected by the measure's proponents.
The law takes effect Jan. 1 and excludes jails that already participate in cooperative programs with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in which arrestees' immigration status is checked. Hamilton County and Bradley County sheriff's office officials said last month they have such programs.
But jails without them will now be required to check prisoners under the new state law.
State officials must develop a "standardized written procedure for verifying the citizenship status of individuals who are arrested, booked or confined for any period in a county or municipal jail or detention facility."
Prisoners will be referred to the "appropriate" immigration agency if local officials determine they are in violation of federal immigration laws or are unable to ascertain their immigration status.