Last year, the 2015 legislative session seemed to mark a turning point for immigrant and refugee communities across Tennessee. For the third year in row, we had defeated every major anti-immigrant bill, and far fewer had been filed than in years past. Over the past year, however, our political climate has changed dramatically.
Our context has been shaped by increasingly visible movements for justice, like the movement for black lives, and by significant victories, like the marriage equality ruling. Our current moment has been shaped by recent acts of global and domestic terrorism and by the largest displacement of people since World War II. Perhaps most consequentially for us, it has also been shaped by a heated and off-script campaign for the presidency. It is in this context that our legislature convened in January of 2016 for the final year of the 109th General Assembly.
Candidates for president were not the only ones competing for votes and engaging in a xenophobic race to the bottom this year. Half of the Tennessee Senate and the entire House of Representatives are also up for re-election, causing many to focus on politics instead of policy. Early in the legislative session, it became clear that many were hoping to ride the coattails of presidential candidates by echoing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic rhetoric. Without question, 2016 was one of the most hostile legislative sessions in years and will be remembered as an exercise of political theater and opportunism at its worst. Fifteen anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, or anti-refugee bills were on the docket at the start of the legislative session and the tuition equality bill awaited a final vote on the House floor. Although we were not able to pass tuition equality this year, we held the line and prevented all but two of the anti-immigrant bills from becoming law this year.
See below for an overview of the proposals and results. While it is clear that we still have much to do to build a Tennessee where the rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees are protected, it's also clear that we have a powerful coalition of refugees, immigrants, and allies ready to do the work. Thanks for being part of our coalition and for all that you do to create a more welcoming Tennessee.
Closing the Door on Refugees
Since 2011, the Tennessee legislature has been the testing ground for the country’s most extreme anti-refugee policies, championed by nativist organizations who have long worked to erode support for resettlement programs. While their views and policy proposals were largely outside of the political mainstream in years past, recent global tragedies, the ongoing global refugee crisis, and election rhetoric allowed these once fringe policies to gain broad support.
Seeking to play off of Tennessean’s worst fears and instincts, legislators were eager to score political points by scapegoating refugees. In all, six policies were proposed that would limit or end refugee resettlement or make it harder for refugees to rebuild their lives here. Proposals included measures to deny services to refugee families and children, to discriminate against refugees from Middle Eastern and North African countries; and to re-take control of the Tennessee Office for Refugees from Catholic Charities in an attempt to limit or halt refugee resettlement. We successfully prevented five of these bills from becoming law, however, the legislature was able to advance Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 467, which quickly gained momentum.
SJR 467, introduced by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey (R – Kingsport), Senator Mark Norris (R – Collierville) and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R – Lancaster), directs Attorney General Slatery to sue the federal government over refugee resettlement. The resolution had 24 sponsors in the Senate and reportedly over 70 sponsors in the House. If Attorney General Slatery chooses not to file a lawsuit, this resolution allows the General Assembly to hire outside counsel. The resolution’s sponsors have citedthe self-described conservative law firm, the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), which is known for its extremist anti-Muslim ideology, as the most likely group to offer outside counsel. The TMLC had been seeking a plaintiff in this lawsuit for months, and embarrassingly found a partner in Tennessee.
In response to the anti-refugee backlash, we built a powerful coalition of refugee leaders, resettlement agencies and refugee-serving organizations, faith leaders, and allies. We mobilized hundreds to attend committee meetings and floor votes, gathered thousands of petition signatures, testified in committees, and mobilized more than 9000 emails to the Governor and legislators in opposition to the bills.
In the end, SJR 467 passed the Senate with 27-5 votes and the House of Representatives with 69-25 votes. On April 27th, we delivered a letter to the governor urging him to veto this dangerous resolution. National and local partners also urged the governor to veto. Unfortunately, Governor Haslam chose to prioritize politics over good public policy and common sense and returned the resolution to the legislature without his signature. He deferred to the attorney general to determine whether the lawsuit outlined in SJR467 is in the best interest of Tennesseans and whether the legislature has the constitutional authority to employ outside counsel. We are continuing to monitor developments around the potential lawsuit and to build a strong, statewide coalition to rebuild support for refugee resettlement and invest in refugee integration. Stay tuned for more information.
Banning Sanctuary Cities
Since July 2015, Presidential candidates and extremists in Congress have been campaigning against so-called "sanctuary cities" – a misnomer to describe localities that have put reasonable limits on how federal authorities can conduct immigration enforcement activities. This year, there were three bills filed that would have required localities to “fully comply” with every request from federal immigration authorities, including voluntary requests like detaining individuals when they would otherwise be eligible for release. If any locality did attempt to set reasonable limits on collaboration with ICE, they would be punished by withholding loans, incentives, and grants from the Department of Economic Development or grants made to local law enforcement agencies.
Throughout the session, we educated lawmakers on how these misguided bills could jeopardize public safety, waste taxpayer resources, and make localities liable for due process violations. Each of the bills to mandate collaboration with federal immigration agents were defeated in committee. However, it is clear we still have a lot of work to do to educate lawmakers on the disastrous impacts of ICE and local law enforcement entanglement.
Criminalizing Undocumented Immigrants
HB 1885/SB 1768, introduced by Representative Daniels (R – Knoxville) and Senator Bailey (R – Sparta), would have allowed for enhanced sentences in criminal court "if the defendant was illegally present" at the time the crime was committed. Despite passing in committees, HB1885 was not funded in the state’s budget and therefore did not become law.
Four different bills were introduced to expand the use of the federal E-verify program in Tennessee. Expansion of this inaccurate and costly program undermines worker rights and protections, creates unnecessary and discriminatory barriers to employment, and burdens small businesses. Some measures would have expanded existing E-verify laws to require every business that employs more than one person to participate in the program. Others sought to increase penalties for not complying with E-verify laws, and another added disclosure requirements to businesses attempting to contract with the state, putting employers at risk of violating federal law. Despite strong opposition from TIRRC and members of the business community, one of the E-verify proposals was amended and ultimately enacted.SB1965/HB1830 passed and will require any business that employs more than 50 employees to participate in the E-verify program starting in June 2016. We will monitor the roll out of this bill and work to defend the rights of workers.
In 2015, the Tennessee Senate passed the tuition equality bill by an overwhelming vote of 21-12, and the bill came within just one vote of passing on the House floor. This year, we needed 18 votes in the Calendar and Rules Committee to get a second chance on the House floor.
In an election season fueled by Presidential politics and anti-immigrant rhetoric, members of the House of Representatives chose to deny thousands of students access to higher education rather than cast a vote on this bill. There were not 18 members of the Calendar and Rules Committee willing to vote for tuition equality.
For the past 12 months, we’ve been organizing in every corner of this state. We’ve built a coalition of thousands, from Dreamers to educators, from Memphis to Morristown. And we didn’t stand alone -- Farmers in every county voted to include tuition equality as part of the Tennessee Farm Bureau’s 2016 legislative agenda. The Tennessee Board of Regents included our bill as one of their key policy priorities for 2016, recognizing that it’s an important step in the Drive to 55. Statewide, chambers of commerce, university presidents, faith leaders, and community groups all joined us in pushing for tuition equality.
Despite the failure of the House of Representatives to take action this year, we know that history and momentum are on our side and that it’s only a matter of time before tuition equality becomes a reality in Tennessee. We will turn our anger into action, harness the courage of Dreamers across the state, and come back again for the 2017 legislative session stronger than ever.
Thank you to the many organizations and institutions who fought tirelessly for tuition equality this year, including members of our Tuition Equality Advisory Committee, the Tennessee Farm Bureau, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Tennessee Board of Regents. We are grateful for your support and partnership in this campaign and for following the leadership of undocumented youth.
Thank you to our partners in the refugee resettlement and refugee-serving community who do critical work each day and also act as powerful advocates. We are especially grateful for the partnership of the Scarritt Bennett Center, for working with us to build a network of faith leaders across the state who stood for moral leadership and political courage in the Refugees Welcome campaign.
Thank you to our many member and partner organizations across Tennessee, whose leadership and advocacy strengthened the campaign for tuition equality and all of the efforts to defeat harsh anti-immigrant bills. We are also so grateful for our national partners who supported our work in so many ways. A million thank yous to United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center, Church World Service, Refugee Council USA, the IRC, the Partnership for a New American Economy, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
And lastly, many thanks to all of our members and supporters who wrote emails, made phone calls, met with legislators, and took action. We couldn’t do it without you!