Three bills targeting illegal immigration are making their way through the Tennessee legislature drawing vows by the American Civil Liberties Union to pursue litigation if they become law.
Other states, including Florida and Georgia, also are weighing strict measures that bear similarities to one that became law last year in Arizona, but parts of which have been blocked by the courts. Many legal experts believe the legal battle over Arizona's immigration law could reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
One of the Tennessee bills would allow local law enforcement agents to question suspects about their immigration status. The other bills would require the state's employers to prove their employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S. and require agencies to verify that applicants for public benefits are legally eligible for them.
Republican Rep. Joe Carr of Lascassas is the sponsor of all three proposals, which each passed the House State and Local Government Committee on a voice vote on Tuesday.
In Florida, the state Senate appropriations committee is expected to vote on a highly contentious immigration package, known as SB 2040, that, among other things, requires employers to use a federal database known as E-Verify to check on a person’s eligibility to work in the United States.
“Florida has thrived because of immigrant entrepreneurship, tourism and immigrant labor in agriculture,” said Katherine Vargas of the National Immigration Forum in Washington D.C. “We’re concerned about the message that Florida would send” about immigrants and foreign visitors.
In Tennessee, the Arizona-style proposal involving law enforcement officers drew the most debate because of concerns from some lawmakers that it would hurt tourism in the state and cause racial profiling.
"I'm afraid ... we're putting it out there that we're following Arizona's lead," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. "I'm afraid we're going to have some overzealous officers. I do not want to give tools to someone who would do that."
Opponents of such measures say immigration is a federal responsibility and too complex and costly for each state to tackle on its own. The United States is home to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.
In late March, Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, the Illinois Democrat, launched a multi-city tour similar to a previous one to drum up support for comprehensive immigration reform. Gutiérrez's tour stresses deportations --which have reached record levels under the Obama administration-- as an ill-conceived approach to illegal immigration that separates families that include U.S. citizens.
Gutiérrez is renewing his call on President Obama to make a greater effort toward an immigration reform policy, and putting a halt to some deportations.
"The fear and dissatisfaction in immigrant and Latino communities is palpable and both parties shoulder some of the blame," Gutiérrez said in a written statement of the feedback he has received during the tour so far. "Headed into an election year, the issue I am hearing about most is the record-setting pace of deportations, the price families and communities are paying, and the failure to make progress on immigration."
But supporters of strict enforcement measures say the federal government has failed repeatedly to deal with illegal immigration, and that leaving it un-addressed is placing a burden on states with large undocumented populations.
Utah recently took the rare step of passing immigration measures that called for enforcement at the local level, but also paved the way for undocumented immigrants to become "guest workers" in the state. That provision, however, would depend on a federal waiver for Utah of the U.S. immigration law that makes it illegal to hire an unauthorized worker.
Curry Todd, the chairman of the Tennessee House State and Local Government Committee, said before the voice vote Tuesday that the federal government is irresponsible when it comes to the issue.
"We wouldn't be here if the federal government would do their job; Obama and the rest of them up there," Todd said. "That's why the states are getting involved in it."
This story contains material from The Associated Press.