NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to legislation banning "sanctuary" city policies that critics say require law enforcement to comply with federal requests to hold suspected undocumented immigrants without warrants or probable cause.
The bill easily passed the GOP-led House and Senate by wide margins and now goes to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam for his consideration.
A provision of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin, and Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, would deny state economic and community grants to towns and cities that have so-called "sanctuary city policies."
Tennessee does not have any sanctuary cities. Last year, the Metro Nashville Council briefly flirted with an ordinance restricting local agencies' ability to cooperate with federal immigration officials beyond what the law requires. It was dropped.
Majority Republicans in the House beat back an amendment from Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville that sought to punish companies that employ 50 or more "illegal aliens."
Citing this month's raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents on a Grainger County meat-packing plant, Stewart said, "they're there because you had a company breaking the law, allegedly, and providing unlawful employment."
He later added: "This is how you address this issue, by going after employers." He decried Reedy's bill as "symbolic," but immigrant advocates do have concerns about some provisions.
Reedy said that he was "excited about the content" of Stewart's amendment and noted he would support him on it if it were in a separate bill. Reedy then successfully moved to table Stewart's amendment.
Later in the Senate, Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville attorney, criticized the bill, saying it was "more tough talking at the expense of the Constitution" and fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, seizures and detentions.
Local governments and taxpayers will be footing the bill for detentions, Yarbro warned, and he questioned the legislation's impact on getting undocumented immigrants to speak freely with police about crimes they've witnessed. He noted that Nashville police last week went door-to-door in search of the suspect in last weekend's deadly Waffle House shooting that left four people dead.
Green argued the bill does not violate Fourth Amendment protections, saying the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled favorably in a Texas case on probable cause issues in federal detainer documents.
A physician running for Congress, Green said ICE does pay a portion of the costs for holding detainees. He said studies show that enforcement doesn't have a "chilling effect." And he also said undocumented immigrants who turn in someone committing a crime are incentivized with a path toward legal status to remain in the U.S.
In the House, some Republicans voiced concern, among them Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain. When the bill was in committee, Hazlewood sought unsuccessfully to send it for study over the summer and fall by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
"I'm not a lawyer, but I'm told by good lawyers there are constitutional issues with this bill," said Hazlewood, who raised a host of other concerns, as well. "I would ask that we vote down this bill today, recognizing that we'll come back" in 2019.
Among her concerns were impacts putting additional strains on local law enforcement and jail overcrowding.
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the bill is "one of the country's most extreme and anti-immigrant bills."
"We are urging the governor to veto the mass deportation bill that would make Tennessee a dangerous place for immigrant families and cement our state's reputation as hostile and unwelcoming," she said.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.