Bill would make jailers determine immigrant status

By Travis Loller
Associated Press Writer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A bill that would require Tennessee jailers to determine whether inmates are in the country illegally and deport them if they are would offer an easy way to fight illegal immigration in the state, the sponsors of the legislation say.

“It’s one of those things that is so simple, it’s almost elegant in its simplicity,” Sen. Dolores Gresham said.

But some sheriffs consider the bill an unfunded mandate and an invitation to lawsuits.

Sheriff Norman Lewis was able to have Montgomery County excluded from the bill. It is one of several counties that could be exempted from the provisions by a special amendment.

“First off, I think there are certain liabilities that go with that deal, and sheriffs are not exempt,” Lewis said. “And number two, it puts local governments doing what the federal government ought to be doing.”

The two chambers of the General Assembly have adopted competing versions. The House has rejected efforts in the Senate to exclude some counties from the measure. Lawmakers are hoping to reconcile their differences before the Legislature adjourns this week.

Gresham, R-Somerville, said concerns that the bill could lead to racial profiling and lawsuits are a “red herring.”

“If there’s racial profiling going on, since I’m Mexican-American, then I would be in jail,” she said.

However, Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker, who is the legislative chairman for the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association, said the potential for lawsuits is one of the biggest concerns sheriffs have had about the measure.

“The main concern of sheriffs and the Sheriffs’ Association is, ‘Let’s minimize these issues,’” he said. “Even if you’re found not guilty of a violation, it’s still very expensive to fight a federal civil rights suit.”

Barker said an earlier version of the bill had no clear standard for how jailers were supposed to determine immigration status, but the version adopted by the Senate on May 27 requires the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission to develop written rules and procedures.

Barker said sheriffs are more comfortable with the new version, but he took issue with the idea that determining immigration status is simple.

“I don’t know what it’s like to run a manufacturing plant because I don’t run a manufacturing plant, so I’m not going to say, ‘You just do this. It will be real simple and real easy.’”

Rep. Vance Dennis, the bill’s House sponsor, said the bill is necessary because not all jurisdictions are sharing information with ICE when they arrest someone they suspect is illegally in the country. The Savannah Republican said he has seen the problem first hand in his work as an attorney.

“I’ve seen many instances where someone is incarcerated in a local jail and there’s a reasonable suspicion that they’re not in the country legally based on factors, most prominent to me, that they are not able to speak English,” he said.

Immigrant rights advocate Stephen Fotopulos, director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, has lobbied against the bill. He said the assumption that someone who isn’t fluent in English is an illegal immigrant is just the sort of thing that is likely to get local jailers in trouble.

“All U.S.-born citizens from Puerto Rico would be mortified to think that’s a legitimate test,” he said.

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