On Friday, April 19th, the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned, marking the end of the first half of a two-year session. While this shorter-than-expected session will certainly be remembered for the growing pains of the new Republican supermajority, heated battles over education reform, and several mentions on national cable news, immigrant rights advocates will celebrate 2013 as a year when no anti-immigrant legislation passed.

Though a victory worth celebrating, the 2013 legislative session also forecasts the many challenges we can expect in 2014 and the expanding focus of anti-immigrant legislation in Tennessee.

The Context: Shifting Political Winds

In the wake of the 2012 elections, the national conversation around immigration changed dramatically. The election results reinforced the critical importance of the immigrant vote and the rejection of anti-immigrant policies of self-deportation. Though Election Day looked quite different in Tennessee, resulting in a new supermajority for Republicans, the lessons learned nationally made their way to top Republican officials in Tennessee. Following the election, Lieutenant Governor Ramsey told news station WJHL-TV that “They’re here, they’re hard-working people, they are Christian Roman Catholics, they think like we as Republicans do, they are conservative, and so we need to figure out a way for them to become citizens…[T]here are a few in our party that scream to the high heavens about this (immigration) issue, and it scares [immigrant voters] away.[1]

However, it seemed that not all in the party got the same message. Later that month, Representative Joe Carr (R-Lascassas), responded that Ramsey’s statements were “disappointing,” and that the Lieutenant Governor was “pandering.[2]

Looking Ahead

The Proposals



English Only Driver Licenses, Again 

Despite changing political calculations, the same English-only driver license bill that we see every year was recycled this session. HB593/SB900, introduced by Representative Sparks (R-Smyrna) and Senator Campfield (R-Knoxville), would have prohibited the translation of all examinations for driver licenses and permits. By prohibiting translation of examinations, we would undermine public safety and the ability of new immigrants to integrate and learn English. During our 7th annual New American Day on the Hill on March 19th, immigrant leaders from across the state met with their representatives and members of the House and Senate Transportation Committee to lobby against the bill. The next day, the House Transportation Subcommittee sent the bill to a Summer Study, and the Senate sponsor took the bill off notice. We need to pass laws that make full integration and participation of New Americans easier, not more difficult. This includes expanding the number of available languages beyond Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and German (limited). These languages do not reflect the true diversity or needs of Tennessee’s immigrant communities.

Undermining Due Process

In 2012, Representative Carr (R-Lascassas) and Senator Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) introduced and passed a bill that allowed, in specific traffic accidents, magistrates to consider someone’s immigration status as an aggravating factor in setting their bail, as well as removing statutory limits on the amount of bail that may be set in these circumstances.

This year, there was an attempt to expand this legislation and continue to burden local criminal justice systems with federal immigration enforcement. HB410/SB248, introduced by Representative Alexander (R-Winchester) and Senator Bowling (R-Tullahoma), would have allowed magistrates to consider someone’s undocumented status (a civil immigration violation) against them in criminal justice cases when setting their bail, regardless of the offense. TIRRC lobbied against this bill, arguing that it undermined due process and ignored studies that disprove the link between citizenship status and risk of flight, while also reinforcing the dangerous assumption that immigrants do not have ties to their communities. We argued that this bill was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the criminal justice system works in relation to the civil immigration system. After several meetings with Representative Alexander, he took the bill off notice on March 19th, 2013.

De-Funding Refugee Resettlement 

In 2013, we saw the latest bill in a multi-year attempt to create a hostile environment for refugee families who come to Tennessee to escape persecution, work hard and begin rebuilding their lives. HB1326/SB1325, introduced by Representative Womick (R-Rockvale) and Senator Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), was a thinly veiled effort to stop refugee resettlement in Tennessee by defunding the Tennessee Office of Refugees (TOR). Ignoring the positive contributions of refugees to Tennessee, these legislators instead continue to promote mean-spirited policies based on the false premise that refugees are less worthy of being in Tennessee than any of us.

HB1326, as introduced, would have required the TOR to reimburse the state for the "cost" of refugees -- as determined by such metrics as how many children are in school. In the House, the bill was amended to require the TOR to submit annual reports but not yet be billed for the "cost" of refugees. After an incredible response from our members across the state and our partners at the legislature, members of the House State Government Committee asked tough questions about HB1326 and ultimately voted to send it to a summer study committee. The bill did not move forward in the Senate. Shortly after the House vote, proponents of the bill sent messages to their supporters committing to come back prepared next year to pass this or similar legislation.

Denying DACA Recipients Driver Licenses

In response to incredible organizing by DREAMers across the country, on June 15 of 2012, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would grant deferred action to immigrant youth in the US who met specific criteria. The new program of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows DREAMers to remain lawfully present in the US for a renewable two-year period and to apply for work authorization. In Tennessee, current estimates suggest that more than 14,000 immigrant youth are currently eligible for DACA or will be once they reach 15 years of age.  Under current TN law, youth who benefit from DACA meet the statutory requirements for a temporary driver license.

SB209/HB125, introduced by Representative Butt (R-Columbia) and Senator Bowling (R-Tullahoma), would have taken away driver licenses from immigrant youth who were granted deferred action. Although these youth are lawfully present and legally able to live and work in Tennessee, this mean-spirited bill would have prevented them from being able to drive in our state. Allowing DACA recipients to continue applying for temporary driver licenses makes sure these youth are able to fully participate and contribute to our community and economy, and ensures that the roads are safe for all of us by allowing DACA recipients to pass a driving test and obtain insurance.

Immediately after introduction, TIRRC youth leaders met with both sponsors, the chairs of the Transportation Committee in the House and Senate, Speaker of the House Beth Harwell and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey. The swift action by Tennessee’s immigrant youth and their diligent monitoring and consistent lobbying against this bill ensured that it did not move forward this year. 

Limiting Immigrant Civic Participation

Building the civic engagement of immigrant communities is at the core of TIRRC’s work. During election years, immigrant leaders work to register New American voters, turn immigrant voters out to the election, and engage in election protection by serving as poll watchers. This was especially important in 2012, as election commissions implemented new and confusing photo ID requirements and the Davidson County Election Commission encouraged poll workers to question someone’s citizenship status if they sounded foreign-born. In 2012, our civic engagement work also received media attention as undocumented youth registered voters and TIRRC staff and leaders monitored the polls. At the same time, the immigrant vote nationally shifted the political landscape and calculation of both political parties.

In response, several lawmakers introduced legislation designed to undermine immigrant engagement in the civic process, as well as to expand harsh voter ID laws. SB549/HB985, introduced by Representative Matheny (R-Tullahoma) and Senator Bell (R-Riceville), would have prohibited non-US citizens, regardless of immigration status, from serving as volunteer poll watchers or even entering a polling place. The Senate sponsor amended the bill to make limited exceptions for people providing assistance to voters, and managed to pass the bill in the Senate. In the House, the sponsor amended the bill even further, allowing non-citizens to enter the polling place for any necessary purpose -- like assisting a voter or performing work duties -- but maintained a prohibition on non-citizens serving as poll watchers.

The night before HB985 was scheduled for a vote on the House floor, the Attorney General released an opinion, finding HB985 to be "constitutionally suspect under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." After the release of this opinion, the House sponsor “laid the bill on the desk,” delaying a vote (and any amendments on the bill) until next year.



Continuing Efforts to Undermine Immigrant Civic Participation 

While we succeeded in delaying a vote on HB985, the bill to undermine immigrant civic engagement, it remains “on the desk” in the House. Next year, the House sponsor could move the bill to a floor vote at any moment. TIRRC will continue to promote the civic engagement of immigrants and defend against any legislative attempts to make civic participation more difficult.

Undermining Reform & Immigrant Integration

As the TN General Assembly adjourned for the year, the bipartisan Gang of 8 in the US Senate introduced Senate Bill 744, legislation designed to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies. While the fate of the bill in Congress is unknown, there is reason for optimism that leaders from both parties are finally serious about immigration reform. As we saw with efforts to take away driver licenses from DACA recipients, a few state lawmakers seek to undermine progress at the federal level by creating new barriers here in Tennessee. No matter what happens in Congress, TIRRC will continue to advocate for promoting and expanding the integration of immigrants in Tennessee.

Targeting Refugee Families & Children

The sponsors and organizations behind the multi-year attack on refugee children and families will certainly continue their efforts in 2014. Proponents of this year’s HB1326/SB1325 (an effort to de-fund refugee resettlement) have committed to running the bill again next year. While most political leaders see refugee resettlement as a smart investment and an expression of our state's highest values, there are several extremist lawmakers who continue to target these vulnerable individuals and the agencies that serve them and put Tennessee on the map as innovators in the field of anti-refugee policy. TIRRC will continue to work with our members and partner organizations to fight anti-refugee legislation in 2014 and continue to make Tennessee a welcoming place that helps refugees build up their lives and fully participate in our community. 

Broad Attacks on Women, the LGBTQ Community, People of Color, & Working Class Families

Although none of the bills that specifically targeted the immigrant community passed this year, several other bad bills were introduced and passed that hurt working families, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

For example, Senator Summerville (R-Dickson) claimed he was carrying the torch of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and finally completing the civil rights movement—by prohibiting state government and public institutions of higher education from promoting and protecting equal opportunity. In a package of nine separately filed bills, Senator Summerville aims to dismantle any and all attempts at expanding opportunity in the state of Tennessee, prevent state entities from even promoting diversity or inclusion, and prohibiting governments from keeping data or statistics on race, ethnicity, or sex. Representative Casada (R-Franklin) and Senator Kelsey (R-Germantown) introduced HB501/SB35 to take power away from local governments to set standards for local workers in regards to wages, family leave, and insurance. The bill was amended to include a provision that would prohibit local governments from passing any law or rule that addressed issues of wage theft.

TIRRC worked with our allies in the social justice movement to fight back against the broad scale attacks on marginalized communities, including participating in the first annual People’s Day on the Hill. We will continue to build these coalitions and work in partnership with our brothers and sisters in the 2014 legislative session.

Many Thanks To...

All of our members and allies at the legislature and in the community who stood up and spoke out against these bills, and the thousands who responded to action alerts by sending messages to their representatives; the community leaders who participated in our 7th annual New American Day on the Hill; and our Board of Directors, Advisory Board members, and national allies for their guidance and indispensible support.

[1] "Ramsey among Republicans calling for new approaches to immigration issues.” TN Report. 12 November 2012.

[2] Garrison, Joey. “Obama program offers young TN immigrants a world of opportunity.” The Tennessean. 29 November 2012.