Tennessee Senator Ready to Fight U.S. Government over Arizona-Style Law

First it was Arizona.

Now it’s Tennessee.

A Tennessee state senator who plans to introduce an Arizona-style immigration bill in January says he expects – and is ready to fight – a federal court challenge against it.

Sen. Bill Ketron, a Republican, says he is introducing a measure in mid-January that would make being in the country illegally – which the federal government classifies as a civil violation – a criminal offense in Tennessee. The measure is still being drafted and modified, and being vetted by lawyers, Ketron said, to ensure that it does not violate the state’s constitution.

Local news reports about the measure say it calls on police to check on the immigration status of anyone they encounter during the course of their work whom they suspect might be here illegally, and gives them the power to detain them and call immigration officials if they cannot prove they’re here lawfully.

Ketron says federal inaction on immigration makes it necessary for Tennessee, and other states, to take it upon themselves to crack down on illegal immigration.

Critics, including the former president of the Nashville Bar Association, who is leading the opposition to the bill, say Ketron and other legislators who support an Arizona-style approach to illegal immigration are making scapegoats of the undocumented.

They are building a campaign to fight the bill. They're calling the campaign "Tennessee for All of Us," and launching it in January.

A previous version of the bill allowed Tennessee to punish employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. But since a similar, 2007 Arizona law – different from the more sweeping one - is facing a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, with plaintiffs arguing that it conflicts with the federal government’s authority in enforcing immigration laws, Ketron removed that provision from the latest draft.

He is planning to make it a standalone bill, he said.

Ketron said that Tennessee has been attracting a growing number of illegal immigrants as construction jobs, as well as other low-skill work, become more plentiful in response to the increase of the overall state population.

The Census 2010 state population totals, released on Tuesday, showed that Tennessee had an 11.5 percent growth since 2000.

Political leaders in Washington D.C., Ketron said, have failed to act on illegal immigration, and he does not expect that to change any time soon. So Ketron, like officials across the nation, feels that individual states must enforce immigration laws.

“Arizona only did it after several years of requesting, ‘Please help us, because of what’s coming across the borders,’” Ketron said. “So they took matters into their hands and passed this bill.”

Legislators in various other states have drafted, or have said they plan to draft, laws like Arizona’s highly controversial SB 1070. Legislators in several states are waiting to see what results from the lawsuits, including one by the Department of Justice, which argues that immigration is a complex federal issue and must be treated in a uniform, national way.

Justice Department officials have said that while they understand the frustration of local officials, addressing immigration requires resources that must be prioritized – first, with a focus on those who pose a threat to national security, or who have committed serious crimes and threaten the public safety.

Ketron sees a fire burning, and says someone has to work to put it out.

“It’s an issue of sovereignty,” he said. “When the federal government won’t do what they’re supposed to do, then when we do what they’re supposed to, they say we can’t and they sue us.”

Ketron says illegal immigrants – who are estimated at about 150,000 in Tennessee, or about two percent of the state population – are taking jobs that legal immigrants and U.S. citizens badly need at a time of high unemployment.

Critics say that Ketron is using illegal immigration for his own political gain. They say that the bill will lead to racial profiling because people who “look” or “sound” foreign will come under suspicion and be targeted by police.

“We’re not Arizona,” said attorney Gregory Ramos, a former state prosecutor and past president of the Nashville Bar Association. “We don’t have the border problems that Arizona has. Tennessee is more than 1,600 miles from the border. Ketron and others are spreading fear and anxiety based on unfounded allegations.”

"I'm from Arizona, from Phoenix," Ramos said.

Ramos, who recently debated Ketron over the bill on local TV, cited a 2007 report by the state comptroller called “Immigration Issues in Tennessee” that was commissioned by state legislators and found that “complete and accurate information appears to be missing from many discussions” in Tennessee about illegal immigration.

The report said that illegal immigrants are not eligible for most public benefits. It said that “unauthorized aliens contribute to state and local revenue as all residents in Tennessee through sales taxes on goods purchased, property tax through the payment of rent, as well as other user taxes such as those on gasoline.”

It also noted that controlling immigration is a federal responsibility, and that Tennessee should handle its frustration over the system by pushing for both more enforcement and more funding for state and local services for the undocumented.

“Unauthorized immigrants are not taking jobs or affecting jobs,” Ramos said. “They’re filling a demand for labor, especially in low-skill jobs. They have a set of skills that complements the skills of native residents in the labor market.”

Ketron said the bill will clearly prohibit racial profiling. He dismisses the comptroller’s report.

“I don’t trust their numbers,” he said.

Ketron senses momentum for the bill. Republicans won big in the November elections, with victories at the mayoral and state legislature levels. And the governor-elect is Republican – Bill Haslam, the Knoxville mayor, who will succeed Democrat Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“We’re going to pass our bill,” Ketron said. “We’re prepared to stand up alongside Arizona and say to the federal government ‘You’re wrong.’”

Ketron blames both parties for the failure of the immigration system.

“The Bush administration didn’t do it; the Obama administration isn’t doing it,” Ketron said. “Republicans and Democrats won’t touch it. Democrats want the votes, Republicans want the cheaper labor.”

“For the first time,” he said, “states are banding together to say to the federal government, ‘Do your job.’”

Ramos says he will keep fighting efforts in Tennessee to follow in Arizona’s footsteps.

"This is a civil rights issue," Ramos said.

“Why do need to jump into this fray?” he asked. “Arizona is now carrying water. A federal judge found parts of it unconstitutional. What is the emergency now in Tennessee that says we need that law here?”

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