It’s been a busy session for Tennessee legislators opposed to illegal immigration. Angered by the federal government’s slow-mo reaction to the problem and emboldened by an outcry from constituents, state legislators have drafted more than a dozen bills aiming to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants arriving in Tennessee.
Most of the proposed bills are remarkable because they will attempt to do what many other states have shied away from: usurp the federal government’s authority to curb illegal immigration. From giving Tennessee state troopers the same powers as federal immigration authorities to making the state driver license exam an English-only test, the raft of legislation takes state law to a brave new world.
Out of all these proposed bills, however, one is likely to have a particular impact on people outside the illegal immigrant community—that is, the rest of us.
Authored by freshman state Rep. Gary Moore, a Joelton Democrat, the bill would make it a felony to knowingly hire an illegal alien, punishable by a $10,000 fine.
As extra fun for employers, the bill creates the lesser crime of “recklessly employ(ing)” an illegal alien. An employer is considered reckless, according to the bill, if a prospective employee uses residency documentation as proof of citizenship in his job application and those documents “later prove to be falsified.”
This recklessness will cost $2,500 per offense. That may be chump change to a big corporation, but it’s a hefty sum for small businesses, and an unthinkable price to pay for being lied to by your housekeeper or the guy who mows your lawn.
As the bill heads to a statehouse subcommittee this week, Rep. Moore is steadfast in defense of his handiwork. “I am serious about trying to curtail illegal immigration,” he says. “If it takes me 10 years to pass this legislation, if that’s what it takes, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Moore, a Metro firefighter, explains that he was prompted to sponsor the bill after constituents listed immigration as the second-most pressing concern, after taxes, on a survey he recently distributed. “You woulda thought that health care would have been on there somewhere,” Moore says, sounding a little puzzled. He hastens to add that he “wasn’t doing it for show or votes,” but because it was “the right thing to do.”
Deb Wooley, President of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, isn’t so sure. She calls the proposed bill “frightening.” “I think it’s a political backlash against immigration issues,” she says. “This places the onus and the penalty on employers to enforce the existing laws.... It’s very difficult when someone presents you with government certifications that are forgeries. How are we supposed to prove that they’re not real documents?”
One thing both sides agree on, however, is that “the federal government needs comprehensive immigration reform.” Those very words were spoken by every source contacted for this story.
The shape that those reforms take may be decided in Washington this week, as Bill Frist is expected to force a debate on the Senate floor. He’s hoping to pass a bill heavy on enforcement and penalties.
Back home, local legislators just might beat him to the punch.