Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam plans to look closely at 'sanctuary city' bill

Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Rotary Club meeting Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Gov. Bill Haslam speaks during the Chattanooga Rotary Club meeting Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he'll take a close look at potential constitutional and other issues before deciding what action to take on a controversial measure requiring law enforcement to comply with federal immigration requests to hold undocumented people without probable cause or warrants.

The "sanctuary city" bill passed the General Assembly last Wednesday in the final hours of lawmakers' annual session. As of Tuesday afternoon it had yet to be signed by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, according to a legislative website.

Only then does it go to the desk of the Republican governor.

Asked about several controversial measures approved at the last minute, Haslam said, "on that bill in particular we want to look at any constitutional issues that might exist as well as real issues for local law enforcement."

"We literally haven't seen the language," said Haslam, noting provisions "took a couple of turns there in the end."

As governor, Haslam can sign a bill into law, veto a measure or allow it to become law without his signature.

Some are urging Haslam to veto the bill. On Monday, the Shelby County Commission passed a resolution doing just that, The Commercial Appeal of Memphis reported.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugees Rights Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee have questioned the constitutionality of the bill and urged Haslam to veto it.

Sponsored by Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, and Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, the bill requires local sheriffs and police to go along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold immigrants suspected of entering the country illegally.

The requests, under what is known as a "detainer" or "immigration hold," are used by federal authorities to have local and state law enforcement agencies detain people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally who've come into contact with police.

Under President Donald Trump's administration, federal officials are moving more aggressively on deportation efforts.

Another bill provision bans so-called "sanctuary cities" in Tennessee. That was already done through a 2009 state law, but the bill adds language saying cities or counties with policies discouraging local law enforcement cooperation with federal agents no longer would be eligible for new state economic and community development grants.

During committee hearings, Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, told lawmakers that sheriffs typically comply with ICE detainer requests to keep detainees for 48 hours. That often runs longer because the limitation doesn't include weekends and holidays.

But Ashe said sheriffs need flexibility to release people mistakenly identified as being in the U.S. illegally, WPLN reported. Now, law enforcement has discretion to do that, Ashe said.

"I mean, the 'sanctuary city conversation' was started just a few years ago," Ashe told lawmakers. "But sheriffs have been enforcing these detainers for years."

Local law enforcement officials also have said detainers can hinder their investigations if undocumented immigrants who have knowledge about serious crimes are fearful about coming forward due to fears of being deported.

Last year, the Metro Nashville Council briefly flirted with passing a proposed ordinance restricting local agencies' ability to cooperate with federal immigration officials beyond what the law requires. It was quickly dropped.

The Commercial Appeal reported the Shelby County Commission's resolution warns the proposed law "invites racial profiling by law enforcement."

The newspaper quoted Shelby County Commissioner Mark Billingsley, the Republican sponsor of the resolution, warning that under the legislation "you're literally looking at the color of someone's skin."

But state Sen. Green, who is running for Congress, said in a news release issued a few hours after Wednesday's vote that "we've seen time and again that the consequences of illegal immigration can be severe, and sometimes, even deadly. This bill puts Tennesseans first."

Green said "we must ensure that the safety of our communities and our state are never jeopardized by policies that protect bad actors. House Bill 2315 empowers our law enforcement communities to take action against those here illegally and holds communities who implement sanctuary city policies accountable."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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