NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday said he is allowing a controversial "sanctuary cities" bill to become law without his signature, arguing it does little in light of current federal policies and the "best thing is to move on."
Haslam, a Republican, told reporters the legislation has "stirred up on both sides what I think is some irrational fear."
The legislation, which becomes state law Tuesday and takes effect Jan. 1, 2019, requires local law enforcement officials to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement requests to hold immigrants for purposes of deportation.
If city and county governments don't comply, state government could withhold economic and community development grants for those communities going forward until such time they comply.
Noting the bill had been amended at various stages during the legislative process, the governor said "this is not the bill we started with" and that a number of constitutional concerns had been resolved to his satisfaction.
He said critics are wrong in saying it amounts to a "mass deportation" measure. And proponents are wrong, the governor said, when they claim Tennessee has "sanctuary cities."
In a letter to Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, the governor complained the legislation "is a solution looking for a problem."
Various immigration and civil rights groups had called on Haslam, a Republican, to veto the bill. In Nashville, opponents held two large demonstrations in an effort to urge the governor to veto it.
The legislation bans local governments from having "sanctuary" policies or practices, including unwritten ones.
Christian Patiño, director of operations for La Paz Chattanooga, a local nonprofit group, said he believes the bill could be a "dangerous slope."
"If they're requiring police to detain people without a warrant, that can sidetrack officers from doing their duties to becoming immigration officers," he said. "The priority for officers should be policing communities, and I think this can break the trust and relationships that people have with their police force."
The law says local governments would be required to comply with federal immigration detainers, without requiring warrants or probable cause, for the potential deportation of people who were arrested on other charges and found to be in the U.S. illegally.
But Haslam's deputy counsel, Todd Skelton, told reporters the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's current policy requires probable cause and a warrant for detainers.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said that based on his reading of the bill, he sees no impact on current practices at either the county jail or for deputies on patrol.
"I don't see that anything's changed at all," the sheriff said.
Chattanooga Police Department spokespersons did not respond to an email on what impact, if any, the law would have on their operations.
Discussion of the measure has been part of the debate in the the GOP gubernatorial primary among candidates seeking to succeed the term-limited governor.
Haslam noted that as governor he can sign a bill into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
"If we vetoed this bill, I'm relatively confident there would at least be a special session. If not, it would be one of the first items that would be discussed in next year's session," said the governor, who leaves office in January.
But he said he wouldn't sign it because that would mean he believes Tennessee has an "issue" around sanctuary cities, which he said it does not. Lawmakers several years ago passed a law banning them. The new legislation provides more details.
Civil rights and immigrant groups have charged the bill mandates local law enforcement detain immigrants for deportation at the request of federal officials without requiring warrants or probable cause.
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, blasted the governor for not vetoing the bill, calling the measure "dangerous and misguided."
"[H]e caved to the most extreme fringe of the electorate," Teatro said. "He chose hate and fear over good governance."
In a statement Monday, House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, a Republican candidate for governor, said: "I appreciate Governor Haslam allowing House Bill 2315 to become law. This measure will further allow our local, state, and federal officials to work together to keep our communities safe, building on the law we passed in 2009 to outlaw sanctuary city policies."
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, said he believes Haslam made a wise decision allowing this legislation to pass. "There are no sanctuary cities in Tennessee and his action today assures that remains the case. As a supporter of the bill, I believe this is a good result for all," he said.
Federal officials in President Donald Trump's administration have cracked down on undocumented people. ICE agents last month conducted a major raid in East Tennessee, detaining nearly 100 people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg in a statement called the bill "unconstitutional and dangerous."
"By allowing this bill to become law, the governor has ensured that thousands of Tennesseans will be forced to live in the shadows, in fear of reporting when they are victims or witnesses to crimes and undermining local law enforcement's ability to use their discretion and resources in the way that they believe best protects public safety in their local community," Weinberg said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.