In the 2011 legislative session, we saw numerous efforts to criminalize and further marginalize members of the immigrant community. There were renewed attempts to burden different segments of society—state employees, local law enforcement, school teachers, small business owners—with the complex task of verifying legal immigration documents. There were also several measures that would prevent immigrant students from attending college, discourage immigrant kids from attending public school, and create new barriers for immigrant families accessing essential government services. Thanks to our collective efforts, we have been able to hold the line in Tennessee and prevent the sweeping, Arizona copycat legislation that passed this year in three other states including Georgia, and still threatens to pass in Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Below you will find descriptions of the major legislative successes and challenges this year. Although there were several near-misses and disappointments, together we were successful in defeating almost all of the anti-immigrant legislation, and in amending any bill that did pass to minimize its negative impact. None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of immigrant leaders, strong allies, and everyone who took the time to get involved. For a comprehensive list of all the bills this year please click here.
Given the many challenges this session, the increase in anti-immigrant legislation across the southeast, and the continued failure of Congress to overhaul our legal immigration system, it's clear that our struggle is far from over. As the 2012 election season nears and the next legislative session fast approaches, we ask that you please help continue the work of TIRRC with your financial support. Please click here to find out how you can help build the movement.
Celebrating Our Successes
Arizona Copycat Bills Deferred Until 2012:
The Arizona copycat bill (SB780 by Ketron, HB1380 by Carr) would have required every law enforcement officer in the state, every time he or she stopped someone for any minor offense, to contact federal immigration authorities based on mere suspicion of a immigration violation. Individuals would be held on the side of the road while local police sorted through documents, and then transported at local expense to some detention facility. Someone could be detained up to 48 hours on mere suspicion of an immigration violation, even if they committed no local offense. We were able to successfully argue that the bill was prohibitively expensive in terms of implementation costs and lost business development. The TN Attorney General also issued an opinion finding that the bill would likely violate both the Tennessee Constitution and U.S. Constitution. Arizona copycat laws undermine the trust in local law enforcement, and promote an environment of racial and status profiling.
Another piece of Arizona’s “show me your papers” law was introduced in Tennessee as a standalone bill, specifically designed to deny essential government services to immigrant families (SB1325 by Johnson, HB1379 by Carr). If passed, it would have created an unnecessary and artificial barrier for all government services, requiring verification of immigration status before any service from a government agency or entity is provided. These blanket verification bills don’t just chill participation by immigrants and refugees eligible for services, they result in tragic mistakes, with people getting improperly turned away due to bad data or misinterpretation of documents. We were able to successfully argue that the financial and human costs of this legislation were simply too significant to bear.
Educators Take Stand Against Intimidation of Immigrant Kids In K-12:
Nothing is more important than educating our state’s future leaders. Nevertheless, a few elected officials attempted to require parents enrolling students in public schools to provide proof of immigration status upon registration (SB1760 by Ketron/HB1085 by Weaver), requiring undocumented parents to sign a written statement about their immigration status and scaring immigrant families away from enrolling their kids at all. A similar bill is still being considered in North Carolina. Our organizers across the state reached out to school principles, district directors, and school board members, and helped them voice their opposition to key members in the House State and Local Government committee. In the end, the House sponsor was instructed to take her bill off notice by the Committee Chair because it lacked the votes to pass.
Religious Freedom For All Preserved:
Tennesseans can express a sigh of relief that the most dangerous portions of the controversial anti-Muslim bill (SB1028/HB1353) have been eliminated. It is regrettable that some lawmakers attempted to score political points by targeting religious minorities, restricting individual liberties and freedoms while potentially wasting taxpayer dollars with such alarming legislation. The anti-Muslim bill (SB1028/HB1353) as originally introduced equated observance of sharia—Islamic law and customs— to terrorism, undermining basic first amendment rights by criminalizing peaceful religious practices. The bill was later amended to remove reference to Islam and sharia, but redefined “material support” of terrorism that gave state government officials sweeping new powers to criminalize a religious organization based on secret evidence and insufficient judicial oversight. All along, this bill was a thinly-veiled attack on Muslims in Tennessee, revealed by the fact that it was written by a national anti-Muslim group and that the sponsors circulated anti-Muslim materials to colleagues in preparation for the vote. Over the course of several weeks, we helped organize over 1000 Muslim community members to the legislature with critical support from the interfaith community across the state. For the first time, state lawmakers came face-to-face with the very people they were attempting to marginalize. Community members made it clear that they were paying attention to the legislative process, informed on the issues, and willing to hold their representatives accountable. After it became clear that Tennesseans from all walks of life were standing together to oppose this assault on religious freedom, the bill was amended to where it merely restates the current state anti-terrorism law.
Employment Eligibility Verification Program Won’t Solve Federal Issue:
Despite months of opposition from powerful business interests, the legislature did pass a heavily amended E-Verify bill requiring businesses with more than 500 employees to begin using the verification system (in some circumstances) by January 2012. The E-Verify program is being sold as an easy fix that would curb unauthorized employment by undocumented immigrants and protect jobs for Tennesseans. But proposals to expand the program entirely ignore the effect the program will have on U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. Database errors incorrectly identify lawfully present immigrants, refugees and U.S. citizens as not authorized for employment. At a time when our state is focused on stimulating the economy, it is important that we do not continue to enact policies that will increase unemployment and jeopardize job security. Furthermore, if undocumented immigrants were removed from Tennessee, our state would lose an estimated $3.8 billion in economic activity, $1.7 billion in gross state product, and nearly 30,000 jobs. We are all deeply troubled by the number of workers in the economy who lack legal status. However, we should all be working together for a federal solution that gives Tennessee businesses access to a legal workforce. It is important to keep in mind that this law will not affect small businesses until 2013, and we have a year and a half to convince our legislators to abandon this error-ridden program. In the meantime, we must monitor implementation of the amended law and respond to abuses as they occur.
Unprecedented attack on refugees:
The "Absorptive Capacity Act,” better known as the “Refugees Not Welcome Act” (SB 1670 by Tracy) passed both chambers and is now on its way to becoming a law. Even though the bill has been amended to have no practical effect, we are concerned that it will encourage local governments to pass symbolic resolutions to discourage further refugee resettlement. The bill allows city governments to request a non-binding moratorium on future resettlement activities if they find that refugee community members create any pressure in the labor market for US-born workers. It is difficult for anybody to leave their country of birth and establish a new home in the US, and receiving communities have an important role to play in helping to facilitate the immigrant integration process. New laws should encourage effective communication between refugees groups, refugee settlement agencies, and receiving communities, but not create a hostile environment for refugee families who have come to Tennessee to escape persecution, find honest work, and begin rebuilding their lives. Through our Welcoming Tennessee Initiative, we hope to not only counter these misguided attempts but also increase understanding of how new Tennesseans share our values, contribute to our economy, enhance our combined culture and strengthen our communities.
Special Thank You to Our Allies
The immigrant community could not have taken on this legislative session without the support and guidance from our amazing allies in the business, civil rights, labor, and faith communities. Ally leaders were often at the forefront of efforts to convince lawmakers of the dangerous and unintended consequences of their proposals. On behalf of TIRRC and its membership, I would like to thank everyone for their incredible work and support this year. With sustained, positive contact by immigrant leaders and their allies, there is a growing awareness among legislators that anti-immigrant bills are bad for our communities, our consciences, and our state's economic well-being. Business leaders have been effective in explaining the importance of immigrant workers to our continued economic growth. Faith leaders have been indispensable in making the moral argument to oppose legislation that would further marginalize and exploit members of the immigrant community. Immigrant leaders and their allies have been more visible than ever, explaining to legislators the unintended consequences of these bills on our collective future. Thank you to everyone who responded to action alerts, contacted legislators, joined our weekly policy calls, participated in New American Day on the Hill, our most important state advocacy day and numerous mini-advocacy days. With our strong and growing coalition of allies it is very evident that Tennesseans will not sit back and watch as part of the community is targeted and marginalized.
Once again, please consider making a financial contribution that enables us to continue making Tennessee a strong, inclusive, and welcoming state.