Updated at 2:06 p.m.
A measure that would require government agencies and local police in Tennessee to work with federal immigration authorities will become law, despite a vigorous campaign urging Gov. Bill Haslam to veto the measure.
Haslam told reporters this morning that he will allow the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill to go into effect without his signature — a largely symbolic decision that signals his discomfort with the measure but legally has the same effect as signing it.
Haslam said while Tennessee has no sanctuary cities — making the measure unnecessary — he also believes that fears the measure will unleash a wave of deportations have been overblown. That led him to conclude the only way to lay the debate to rest would be to let it go forward without his support.
“I think the best thing for the state to do with this decision is to move on from it, because it has stirred up fear that I think is unfounded,” Haslam said. “Confusion and fear are never good. They’re not good reasons to drive political decisions, and in this case I think again, the best thing to do for the state is to move on from this.”
It’s been illegal in Tennessee since 2009 for cities to declare themselves “sanctuaries” where federal immigration laws would not be enforced. But supporters of
House Bill 2315 argued communities could make themselves sanctuaries in all but name, through policies such as preventing police from asking about immigration status and declining to honor detention requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Their measure imposes penalties, in the form of withholding economic development aid from communities that adopt sanctuary policies.
But critics, including immigrant rights organizations, civil libertarians and groups representing teachers and clergy, argued the measure will essentially deputize local authorities to act as immigration enforcers. Hundreds of opponents marched twice through downtown Nashville, and letters were sent on a near daily basis from organizations like the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and Metropolitan Nashville Education Association.
Some of those organizations quickly denounced Haslam’s decision.
“Immigrants should not have to live with the constant fear that any local police officer or sheriff they encounter is a de facto immigration agent,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU’s Tennessee chapter said in a prepared statement. “By allowing this bill to become law, the governor has ensured that thousands of Tennesseans will be forced to live in the shadows, in fear of reporting when they are victims or witnesses to crimes and undermining local law enforcement’s ability to use their discretion and resources in the way that they believe best protects public safety in their local community.”
Behind the scenes, some in law enforcement expressed similar concerns.
Though few publicly called on Haslam to veto the legislation, they told the governor privately that the legislation could chill relations between police and immigrant communities. They also fretted that it could subject them to litigation by taking away their discretion to release people who’ve been accused falsely of immigration violations, and that it would invite accusations of racial profiling.
But Haslam said he also spoke with law enforcement officials who believe the legislation will have no impact on how they perform their duties.
“I don’t know that there was a consensus,” he said. “I think there were some who thought this was putting officers in a difficult position, others who’d say they came to the same conclusion we did.”
The measure goes into effect in January. After then, Haslam said the decision whether to ask about immigration status during investigations or to respond to immigration complaints would often fall on individual officers — not department heads.
But he said laws banning racial profiling would be enough to protect immigrants and other people of color from being harassed or having their status questioned unnecessarily.
He added that anyone who believes their city has adopted a sanctuary policy will have to clear a high legal bar: They’d have to convince a court first before any aid could be withheld.
Politics Also A Factor
Haslam also cited politics as playing a part in his decision.
He said that if he had vetoed the measure, supporters would have responded with calls to hold a special session to consider an override. If that effort failed, Haslam predicted the issue would have remained potent next year.
“The governor’s responsibilities are different than other people’s,” he said. “Sanctuary cities aren’t allowed now, and the best thing that we can do is move on and focus on things that are real issues.”
In fact, the legislation has sparked a broader political debate over sanctuary cities, especially in the race to succeed Haslam.
Congressman Diane Black has called publicly on the governor to sign the measure. Meanwhile, former Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd has released TV spots in which he vowed not to allow sanctuary cities, if elected.
But one of the most notable critics of the legislation, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugees Rights Coalition accused the governor of caving under political pressure. They said he does not deserve any credit for his response to the situation.
“In moments like these, leaders are tested,” Stephanie Teatro, TIRRC’s co-executive director, said in a prepared statement. “When history looks back at the steady march of Tennessee towards becoming a hostile and dangerous place for immigrant families, at the rising tide of nativism and xenophobia, and at the immoral attacks on immigrants in this country, Governor Haslam will see himself on the wrong side.”