Bill would mandate Tennessee officers to report immigration status of people in custody

Hamilton County Sheriff's Office / Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett visits the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, in February 2024. Law enforcement agencies in Tennessee may soon be required to report immigration status information to federal agencies, under a bill passed this week.
Hamilton County Sheriff's Office / Hamilton County Sheriff Austin Garrett visits the U.S.-Mexico border at Eagle Pass, Texas, in February 2024. Law enforcement agencies in Tennessee may soon be required to report immigration status information to federal agencies, under a bill passed this week.

Tennessee law enforcement officers will likely soon be required to report to federal authorities when they have a person in custody who is an unauthorized immigrant under a bill passed this week in the statehouse.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Brent Taylor, R-Memphis, and Rep. Rusty Grills, R-Newbern, would also require Tennessee law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal officials "in the identification, apprehension, detention, or removal" of those lacking authorization to be in the country.

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Opponents to the bill say it could discourage people from reporting crimes and cooperating with police and could lead to racial profiling. Taylor, the bill's Senate sponsor, said it's only intended to target people who commit crimes after entering the country outside the legal process.

"This is not going down and hunting somebody who looks Hispanic, pulling them over and demanding papers," Taylor told lawmakers Monday. "That is an absurdity to even suggest such a thing."

For the most part, Republican lawmakers approved the bill while Democrats voted against it. Now, it waits for a signature from Gov. Bill Lee to become law.

In the Senate, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was the only Republican to vote no. He told senators Monday he was concerned how the children of undocumented immigrants would be affected by the requirement, especially because school resource officers are sworn law enforcement. He also had concerns about its effect at the Department of Children's Services.

"That puts a strain on the school, the principal, the teachers, the SRO, the juvenile court or the DCS that has to take care of this child, until — until somebody from the federal government shows up to take this 6-year-old," Gardenhire said on the Senate floor.

Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, also voted against the bill in the House. He said by phone that many immigrants are already fearful of calling police and that local law enforcement "has enough on its plate right now" without worrying about how to house and transport people reported to federal authorities.

Local agencies

Law enforcement in Tennessee can already report immigration information to federal authorities. The bill would make that ability a mandate.

Neither the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office nor the Chattanooga Police Department have an official contract with federal immigration authorities.

The Sheriff's Office, which runs the Hamilton County Jail, can detain people for up to 48 hours on an immigration hold, Sheriff Austin Garrett said previously. The office can also assist agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on investigations even if there isn't a state law being violated, Garrett said.

"We work with them just like we do any of our other federal partners and state partners," Garrett said in a February interview after he visited the southern border.

Chattanooga officers don't ask about immigration status when arresting someone, spokesperson Sgt. Victor Miller said by phone Tuesday. If someone wants to contact the consulate of their home country, they can, but that's rare, Miller said.

The department has not yet been told how the new requirements would work in practice, Miller said.

'More harm than good'

Vivian Lozano, director of social impact at Chattanooga nonprofit La Paz, said she worries the bill, if it becomes law, will create unnecessary fear and lessen trust in law enforcement among Chattanooga's Latino community and other immigrant populations.

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"Vulnerable communities can potentially be the victims of crime, because they're less likely to call the police or to report crimes that happen," Lozano said by phone Tuesday. "We believe that it will potentially do more harm than good."

An amendment that would have carved out protections for crime victims failed in the Senate on Tuesday. Texas and Florida have similar exceptions, amendment sponsor Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, said on the Senate floor.

If the bill becomes law, Lozano said La Paz will work on educating its community members on its potential effects.

"Immigration is one of those hot button issues," Lozano said. "In an election year, no less, it's one that always comes up. I think that definitely the way that immigration is talked about is not as positive as it used to be."

The statewide Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition lobbied against the bill and encouraged people to attend the discussion on it Monday afternoon.

"It was really heartbreaking to see community members in tears after the vote because they heard how our legislators were speaking about our communities," Judith Clerjeune, policy and advocacy director for the coalition, said by phone.

The border and immigration processes do need to be reformed, Clerjeune said, but she added it has become a fixation for some lawmakers. Bills like those, she said, burden law enforcement.

"I think it's important to recognize that this is an established community," Lozano said. "Not to say that we don't have newcomers that are arriving, but this isn't something new in the state of Tennessee. This is a community that has been here for decades, that is a part of the fabric of our cities and our states."

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.

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