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Tennessee Gov.: Sanctuary bill to become law sans signature

By JONATHAN MATTISE, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday he will let a push against sanctuary cities to become law without his signature after complaining that it has stirred up irrational fear on both sides.

Tennessee has no sanctuary cities and state law prohibits them, Haslam said, calling the legislation “a solution in search of a problem.”

But he also said the legislation is not a mass deportation bill, as immigrant advocacy groups have labeled it. The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition drew hundreds of people to rallies in Nashville, protesting the measure as a misguided effort that will drive immigrants into the shadows.

The legislation bans local governments from having “sanctuary” policies or practices and threatens to withhold future state economic and community development money from those that don’t comply.

Most notably, local governments would have to comply with federal immigration detainers, without requiring warrants or probable cause, for possible deportation of people who were arrested on other charges and then identified as being in the country illegally.

Todd Skelton, Haslam’s deputy counsel, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy currently requires probable cause and a warrant for detainers. But immigrant advocacy groups point out that federal agents are issuing administrative warrants without judicial or magistrate review.

The legislation amounts to a “solution looking for a problem,” Haslam wrote in a letter to legislative leaders. Still, he said the best thing to do with his decision is to “move on from it” and focus on “real issues.”

“Confusion and fear are never good,” Haslam said. “They are not good reasons to drive political decisions.”

Under the legislation, which takes effect in January, Haslam said police departments won’t be able to adopt policies not to ask about immigration status in routine encounters. But officers also would not be required to ask about it, he said.

The bill has become a campaign talking point for Republicans in an election year, including Senate sponsor Mark Green, who is running for U.S. House.

In the race to succeed Haslam, Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black has been the most vocal proponent of the legislation. Her GOP gubernatorial opponents, House Speaker Beth Harwell and businessmen Bill Lee and Randy Boyd, also praised the bill Monday.

Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally said Haslam’s “wise decision” ensures there will continue to be no sanctuary cities in Tennessee.

In a statement, Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the group was disappointed by the governor’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,” Weinberg said. “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.”

Nashville’s combined city-county government enraged Republican state lawmakers by proposing sanctuary city-like immigrant protections last year, and ultimately dropped the push. On Monday, Metro Councilman Fabian Bedne tweeted that he will look into what legal recourse the city may have against the state legislation.

The bill has drawn mixed responses from law enforcement officials.

Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson wrote to Haslam that carrying out the unfunded mandates of the legislation will invite racial profiling accusations. He said Nashville police officers, as a practice, don’t inquire into people’s immigration status while performing public safety duties.

“If there is confusion and apprehension on the part any person as to whether an interaction and cooperation with local authorities might produce a detrimental effect, then the safety of all of our communities is diminished,” Anderson wrote in the letter.

But the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association is OK with the bill, said executive director Terry Ashe, a retired sheriff.

“The only time that this occurs is when they have been arrested on and unrelated charge and then we check for a status,” Ashe said in an email. “In my 30 years as sheriff, from 1982-2012, I can’t ever remember being involved on just picking someone up to only check their status.”

The bill also came on the heels of a federal immigration raid earlier in April that took 97 people into custody at an eastern Tennessee meat processing plant.

Haslam insisted the raid shouldn’t be taken as an example of what could happen under the bill.

“The ICE raid was totally done by federal authorities and would happen the same thing before this bill as it does afterward,” Haslam said.

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