Tennessee House advances bill requiring local officers to aid US immigration authorities

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Republican-led Tennessee House advanced a proposal Thursday that would require law enforcement agencies in the state to communicate with federal immigration authorities if they discover people are in the the country illegally, and would broadly mandate cooperation in the process of identifying, catching, detaining and deporting them.

The House vote coincides with efforts in other Republican-led states to inject more state and local involvement in immigration enforcement, while criticizing President Joe Biden's border policies. That includes a Texas law allowing authorities in that state to arrest migrants who enter the U.S. illegally and order them to leave the country, which remains blocked temporarily in court.

“President Biden’s administration has delivered this pain to our doorsteps,” Tennessee Republican Rep. Chris Todd of Madison County said during Thursday's debate.

Action on the Tennessee bill now moves to the GOP-led Senate floor. It says law enforcement agencies and officials "shall" cooperate in various immigration tasks already spelled out in state law, instead of saying they “are authorized” to do so, which was put into Tennessee code in a toughening of state immigration law that passed in 2018.

The bill also refers back to a federal law that says it is voluntary for states and local governments to get involved in certain federal immigration law enforcement tasks.

The way it's written, the bill could raise legal confusion and worsen tensions between law enforcement and immigrant communities by making local officers de-facto immigration agents, Judith Clerjeune of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition’s voter engagement arm has said.

Democratic opponents also said Republicans are hurting communities of immigrants who are seeking a better life.

“If you're fleeing countries due to violence, if you’re fleeing places due to humanitarian issues, we are turning our back on those individuals,” said Rep. Justin Pearson, a Memphis Democrat. “And that is immoral and wrong.”

A legislative fiscal analysis of the bill says “most, if not all, law enforcement agencies already communicate with the federal government regarding an individual’s immigration status,” citing information from the Tennessee police and sheriffs associations.

The Metro Nashville Police Department expressed concern about the bill. Spokesperson Don Aaron said it could erode the trust Nashville police have built with immigrant communities.

“We rely on members of our community, including immigrants, some of whom are victims, others witnesses, for cooperation and information to further investigations,” Aaron said in an emailed statement. “The concern is this legislation could dissuade cooperation with our officers among some Nashville residents.”

Some conservative advocacy groups are urging states to pass stricter immigration policies while they have criticized illegal border crossings under Biden. The Heritage Foundation, a long-standing conversative think tank, has recommended proposals for states to consider, from verification of worker immigration status to bans on driver’s licenses, license plates, or in-state tuition for people in the country illegally.

A Heritage Action spokesperson said the group supports the Tennessee bill, but hasn’t worked on that one.

In Georgia, Republicans have proposed immigration law changes after police accused a Venezuelan man of beating a nursing student to death on the University of Georgia campus. Immigration authorities say the man unlawfully crossed into the U.S. in 2022. It is unclear whether he has applied for asylum.

One of them, in part, would require eligible Georgia cities and counties to apply for so-called 287(g) agreements to perform some immigration enforcement-related tasks locally to help the federal government. Another would punish cities and counties that Republicans there say are illegally harboring immigrants who are in the country without permission by cutting off most state aid to the local government and removing elected officials from office.

Tennessee Republicans are pushing toward other stricter immigration rules, as well. One bill would make it a misdemeanor to knowingly or recklessly transport someone who is in the country illegally into the state. A current ban only applies when the transportation is aimed at a commercial advantage or private financial gain.

The policing bill has raised questions about whether it would force law enforcement agencies to sign up for 287(g) agreements. Republican bill sponsor Rep. Rusty Grills of Newbern said those agreements wouldn't be required. But Clerjeune has noted that the 287(g) program is mentioned in the federal law that the new state bill cites.

The 287(g) program would require local governments to take on costs to get involved, some opponents of the bill said.

More than 130 agencies in 22 states have one of two varieties of those agreements. Two are in Tennessee: the Greene County and Knox County sheriff's offices. The Nashville-Davidson County sheriff ended an agreement to house immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2019.