The Murfreesboro mosque non-troversy is so 2010, and questioning Islam's status as a religion in order to score political points (à la Ron Ramsey) is utterly passé — at least when it's not an election year. But that doesn't mean Tennessee legislators have slackened their vigilance over the state's immigrant populations.
Previous state and local legislative bodies have served up proposals that would make life in America generally more difficult for people who resettle from other countries — including the infamous "English only" ordinance widely denounced as xenophobic and isolationist (and drubbed in a city-wide referendum in 2009). Yet never has there been an anti-immigrant push like what's being served up by the General Assembly this year. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, by now the Grand Canyon State should be muttering "Aw shucks," eyes downcast and face flushed.
But unlike the vaunted Arizona Senate Bill 1070 — an impressive, multifaceted meta-bill that makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to seek gainful employment, among many other things — we like our anti-immigrant legislation à la carte 'round these parts. If you can think of a way to make life difficult for immigrants of all nationalities and statuses, lawful or unlawful, the state legislature is here to help. Here are seven bills on the hill — with others pending — that address immigration in one severe way or another.
Start with the bill that requires parents enrolling their child in public school to present the child's Social Security number, birth certificate or visa. If they don't have that, they can't come back until they have a written affidavit attesting to the lack thereof. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, stops just short of violating the public-school ideal of universal education, but goes just far enough to intimidate the parents of a non-citizen. The status and the accompanying document are to be kept on file at the school, collated and included in an annual report to the legislature — a curious position for lawmakers who have advocated smaller, less intrusive government.
Jesse Register, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, has already come out against Ketron's and Weaver's "unfunded mandate," as he's said. Aside from the increase in administrative costs to already cash-strapped districts, Register said the bill is likely to be opposed by parents worried about identity theft. He also noted that school officials have no expertise in determining the validity of a visa, birth certificate or Social Security number.
Lest any undocumented immigrants somehow make it through the public school system, though, Rep. Joe Carr and Sen. Jim Tracy are determined to keep them out of higher education. In a complement to the aforementioned bill, they've proposed legislation that bars anyone without papers from entering any school in the University of Tennessee system.
But if somehow an undocumented student graduates? Good luck finding work. A measure making it illegal for any employer, public or private, to hire an undocumented immigrant may well be codified into state law soon, thanks to bills by Rep. Mike Turner and Sen. Lowe Finney. It's just as well, though, because even if they could get jobs to pay the rent, Rep. Julia Hurley and Sen. Randy McNally have proposed a bill that criminalizes leasing property to undocumented immigrants.
But enough already about immigrants with a decidedly undocumented flavor — what about foreign-born folks generally?
Worry not. There's Ketron and Rep. Sheila Butt's English-only driving-test measure. You know the proposed law is ass-backward when states such as Georgia and Alabama still provide driving tests translated into many different languages.
There's also Sen. Jim Tracy's autobiographical bill, the Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act. It's common knowledge that the residents of Shelbyville, in Tracy's district, didn't exactly extend open arms to Somali refugees who resettled there to work at the Tyson chicken plant in the mid-Aughts. The proposed legislation reasons that each community can absorb only so many beleaguered refugees from lawless, failed states. Besides, Tracy insinuates in the bill's language, they steal jobs from real Americans — who no doubt were storming the Tyson plant, demanding positions on the cutlet-carving line. So why not take the next logical step, invoke NIMBY and enact moratoriums on further resettlement?
But these bills are just hors d'oeuvres. The main course is Ketron and Carr's Arizona copycat: The Lawful Immigration Enforcement Act. This bill makes every local cop and county deputy a de facto immigration agent authorized to question and detain anyone suspected of being undocumented "in the course of a lawful stop or detention," a provision experts worry will be interpreted, shall we say, loosely. Its language is lifted straight from the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council — a little-known group that pairs Republican legislators and the corporate beneficiaries of legislation. In this case, it was Brentwood-based Corrections Corporation of America at the table, which had a hand in the Arizona legislation (from which it stands to profit) and has lately become the primary player in the for-profit immigrant incarceration business.
This legislature certainly isn't alone in its mimicry. The bill has more than a baker's dozen doppelgangers among the 50 states, and the Georgia legislature just passed one awaiting the governor's signature. But the fate of the bills, including Tennessee's, is far from certain. The federal government filed suit against Arizona, charging the state with violating the Constitution. A federal district judge granted a preliminary injunction to halt the law's implementation while the challenge winds through the courts. Then, last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision. Next stop: The United States Supreme Court.
The Arizona bill is the proverbial canary in the coalmine, and so far, it isn't looking vivacious. The bill's place in the national nexus of immigration policy is fraught. A good starting point in any discussion of Arizona's foray into national immigration policy can be found in the Immigration and Nationality Act — the provenance from whence the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State and the Department of Justice derive their authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
Congress clearly intended that the states play a role in that enforcement — hence 287(g) and Secure Communities, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement programs that enlist the help of local authorities. But there's a proviso: The local law enforcement authorities "shall be subject to the direction and supervision of the Attorney General." It goes a step further by requiring that any officer enforcing these laws be "determined by the Attorney General to be qualified ..." That means the average traffic cop in a radio car might not be up to the task of parsing the byzantine intricacies of federal immigration laws. It also keeps a state from unilaterally enforcing them.
Nor was it the intention of Congress, according to the Supreme Court's subsequent interpretation, that immigration enforcement become a garish patchwork quilt, alternating state by state. The federal government's prerogative in this case can be found in the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, the district court noted.
Why? Because immigration is foreign policy — and it's a two-way street. It determines how United States citizens are treated abroad. As the 9th Circuit opined in its recent takedown of the Arizona law, "That 50 individual states or one individual state should have a foreign policy is absurdity too gross to be entertained."
Indeed. An arcane array of legal statuses exists under current immigration law. Say someone with one of these statuses jaywalks and is detained by a cop in Shelbyville, Cookeville or Nashville, who is then obligated by law to determine whether the accused offender is lawfully present. The guy could be a national enjoying the Visa Waiver Program, which allows him a 90-day pass for business or tourism. Or perhaps he's a refugee waiting for his asylum request to be adjudicated — in the government's eyes, it doesn't matter whether he's here legally or not. The process can take six months or more, and once asylum is granted, it still takes a year to be eligible for a green card.
Or maybe it's a woman applying for a T nonimmigrant visa, meaning she was brought here by human traffickers. And maybe it's a Hispanic citizen who forgot his ID at home — and is not required by law to carry one. It's entirely possible that he won't have an entry in the Homeland Security database that confirms his citizenship.
None of these people is going to have the kind of photo identification to satisfy a cop enforcing the copycat bill, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder cautioned in his challenge to the controversial law.
While they're waiting on a nonplussed officer — who's probably on hold with ICE's Law Enforcement Support Center in Vermont, which is inundated with calls from other nonplussed officers trying to verify some other person's immigration status — the Fourth Amendment, guaranteeing against unreasonable search and seizure, gets trampled just a little. Arizona's law says explicitly that any suspected undocumented immigrants must be detained until that determination of legality can be made. But for how long? The bill now under consideration in the Tennessee legislature doesn't come right out and say it, but like Arizona, it would enable state and local agencies to seek reimbursement from the federal government for holding suspected undocumented immigrants.
"The Court finds that this requirement imposes an unacceptable burden on lawfully present aliens," the federal district court ruled.
Policing unlawful presence — which, contrary to popular belief, is a violation of civil, not criminal, law — isn't a black-and-white proposition, and ICE agents often use their own discretion. That's something the Arizona and Tennessee bills don't provide for.
If you read between the lines, the judges are asking a question we and the members of the state legislature should be pondering right about now: What kind of country do we want to live in? A police state where even citizens can be subject to inquisitorial questioning each time they step out the door if, God forbid, they forget their ID?
With answers to such a challenge comes a whole new set of concerns. The courts and the Feds pose as-yet unanswered questions about what constitutes a "reasonable suspicion" that someone is unlawfully present in this country. Does the Swiss tourist partaking in the visa waiver program get detained? Or does the Hispanic with poor English? Mind you, using race or language to make that determination constitutes racial profiling, which violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. So what factors does the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission set out as probable causes? The clothes you wear? The kind of car you drive?
The price tag won't just include the several million dollars in first-year costs for this copycat bill alone. It may include the cost of defending it in court against the Department of Justice and any citizen or immigrant who believes his constitutional rights have been violated by it. It may include the lost revenue from organizations who — as Arizona found out firsthand — choose not to hold their annual conventions at the Music City Center if it's ratified.
And remember, this is just the main course. Don't forget all of the à la carte items on this year's legislative menu. For all its bluster about austerity, the General Assembly may rack up quite a bill.
I will when you learn how to read and construct a coherent response.
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