Governor Bill Haslam will allow House Bill 2315 to become law without his signature. The measure bans sanctuary cities and mandates police compliance with ICE.
Elizabeth L Atkins, The Tennessean
A Tennessee immigration law goes into effect Jan. 1 and could lead to changes at the Shelby County jail.
Specifically, it could force the Shelby County Sheriff’s office to obey federal requests to detain immigrants who are suspected of living in the U.S. illegally.
The jail stopped obeying the federal immigration detainer requests this year. The reason: the county attorney said the sheriff’s office would likely violate the U.S. Constitution if it obeyed the requests.
But the Tennessee legislature passed a law this year that aims to punish any local governments that adopt “sanctuary policies.”
It’s not clear what will happen once the new law goes into effect.
“The Sheriff’s Office has no comment at this time,” Sheriff’s legal adviser Debra Fessenden wrote in a recent email.
New law could affect Shelby County jail
The bill aims to stop local governments from adopting “sanctuary city” policies through steps such as cutting off their access to state economic development funds.
Gov. Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law without his signature in May.
Introduced as House Bill 2315, it’s since been codified into law as Public Chapter 973.
There are no self-described “sanctuary cities” in Tennessee. Proponents of HB2315 argued it was necessary to head off issues seen in other states.
There is no legal definition of the term “sanctuary city,” but it often refers to cities such as San Francisco that don’t cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
When immigrants are arrested on local charges, ICE sometimes files requests to hold them until immigration agents can come pick them up. In general, sanctuary cities won’t obey these detainer requests.
The Shelby County jail changed its policies on detainer requests shortly after a high-profile immigration case this year.
Spanish-language reporter Manuel Duran was arrested at a Memphis protest in early April and booked into the Shelby County jail. ICE filed a request to detain him, and he was later taken into federal immigration custody.
Shortly thereafter, someone sent an inquiry to the Shelby County Attorney’s office.
The question: should the jail comply with ICE requests to hold immigrants for up to 48 hours past their release dates?
The answer from the Shelby County attorney’s office was clear: No.
The county attorney’s office said if the sheriff’s office obeyed the ICE requests, it would likely violate the U.S. Constitution, specifically the 4th Amendment protection against arrests without probable cause and the 10th Amendment limits on federal power.
After the county attorney issued the opinion in early April, the sheriff’s office quietly stopped obeying federal immigration detainer requests.
But the sheriff’s office continued to cooperate with ICE in other ways, including telling federal agents when suspects will be released and letting agents make arrests at the jail, the Shelby County agency said earlier this year.
Advocacy group says sheriff’s department is in a tight spot
Mauricio Calvo, head of advocacy group Latino Memphis, says detainer requests don’t have the same weight as arrest warrants signed by a judge.
“So you technically could be taking a person’s liberty without probable cause because that agency says ‘Hey, hold that person for me,’ and that exposes that agency to a huge liability, in our opinion,” said Calvo.
He said the new law could damage trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities, and hurt Memphis’ image as a welcoming city at a time it needs to grow.
Calvo said he and others have spoken about the issue with Floyd Bonner, who was sworn in as sheriff in September.
“They’re concerned, I think for the same reasons that we talked about,” Calvo said. “But I think at the end he’s probably going to have to do whatever the law is. And just kind of you know, again, pick up the pieces, whether it’s losing trust or being sued. I know that he’s not looking forward (to) this.”
Bill doesn’t turn local police into immigration enforcers
In general, state and local police don’t enforce immigration law.
The original text of HB2315 called for all police agencies in the state to negotiate an agreement with the federal government to enforce immigration law.
An amendment weakened that provision. The final text of the law says local law enforcement departments may enter into an agreement with federal immigration authorities if they want to – but they don’t have to do it.
In this sense, the law doesn’t change the current situation. For instance, Knoxville recently entered into formal cooperation with federal immigration authorities through a program called 287(g).
Other local governments have shown little interest in the program. Currently, Knoxville’s is the only 287(g) program in the state.
Memphis city officials say operations likely won’t change
Officials with Memphis city government don’t expect much change.
“Our legal team has reviewed the bill and determined it will not affect our operations,” said city spokeswoman Ursula Madden.
Lt. Karen Rudolph, a police department spokeswoman, said much the same.
“Our current policies do not conflict with the new law, and the law does not require the Memphis Police Department to go out and search for undocumented immigrants,” she wrote in an email. “Inquiring on someone’s citizenship is not a function of the Memphis Police Department.
“The Memphis Police Department does not receive detainer requests from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) because MPD does not oversee the local jail; this is a function of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.
“Occasionally, ICE may contact local law enforcement to assist in maintaining the peace at a particular location where they are present. MPD would only respond as we would with any other agency calling for police assistance.”
Statewide advocacy groups haven’t filed lawsuits – at least not yet
During the debate over HB2315, an advocate with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition warned that the bill was “begging for a lawsuit.” So far, the group hasn’t sued.
Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, the group’s policy director, expressed concern that the new law will embolden “racist government actors” to go beyond the limits of the law and harass immigrant communities.
She said the organization has heard from immigrants in Memphis and across Tennessee who are afraid of what the new law might mean.
“We’ll be working to minimize the impact of HB2315 and closely monitoring the implementation when it goes into effect in January,” she wrote in an email.
The ACLU of Tennessee also lobbied against the bill during debate earlier this year.
So far, the ACLU hasn’t sued to challenge the law, according to spokeswoman Lindsay Kee.
“But we will be monitoring implementation of this law to ensure that all people in Tennessee, including immigrants, are treated fairly by law enforcement and that they receive due process,” she wrote in an email.
The organization updated its resource center on immigrants’ rights, available online at aclu-tn.org/immigrant-rights-resource-center/.
Investigative reporter Daniel Connolly welcomes tips and comments from the public. Reach him at 529-5296, [email protected], or on Twitter at @danielconnolly.
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