Near the end of this year’s session, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill that would require sheriffs to determine the immigration status of anyone brought to their facilities. Supporters have praised the legislation as a step toward strong immigration reform, while detractors have said it is overly harsh and outside the purview of state government.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee asked Gov. Phil Bredesen to veto the bill. Hedy Weinberg, the organization’s longtime executive director, talked with The City Paper about immigration reform in Tennessee.
City Paper: Why should Gov. Bredesen veto this bill?
Hedy Weinberg: Our concern is that the legislation invites disparate treatment of minority groups and encourages racial profiling. The legislation says that the jailer, the sheriff in charge of the jail, is required to send booking information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement if they cannot determine the legal status of the arrested person. And so the bottom line is, it requires individuals — and typically that would mean Latinos or people who look foreign or have other ethnic backgrounds — it requires those groups of people to always carry documentation with them just in case they are arrested.
CP: Some say those in the country illegally are not entitled to the same civil liberties as citizens. What do you say to that?
HW: That’s just, bottom line, not correct. The Bill of Rights applies to everyone residing in this country. The litmus test is not whether you are a citizen. If you’re in this country, you are afforded the same protections anyone else is.
I think what’s not understood and the rhetorical question that always comes back to those of us who work in this area is, “What part of illegal don’t you understand, and why don’t people just stand in line and become citizens?”
“Get in line” is what people typically say. But I don’t think people really understand that line and understand how long it takes to move through the process. Sometimes it can take decades.
CP: You use some pretty strong language in the letter to Gov. Bredesen. You refer to the bill as un-American, creating a police state, leading to racial profiling. Can you explain how this bill does those things?
HW: I think we all understand that in this country, as long as we are required to adhere to certain laws, we are required to pay our taxes — we do not have the expectation that we will be stopped on the street and asked for our papers. In this instance, this legislation effectively creates a police state by requiring individuals to carry their papers at all times so they can prove they are in this country legally in case they are arrested. When we talk about the police state, we typically think of science fiction movies … we’re under the eye of the government at all times.
It appears that there are instances that people are being arrested, rather than citations being issued, based on their ethnicity. And so our concern is that there might be more individuals arrested for a minor infraction rather than issued a citation in order to trigger that immigration status investigation. What we write in the letter was the concern that the legislation actually invites racial profiling at two junctures: one on the street and one at the jail.
CP: Do you think the state has a problem with immigration?
HW: That’s a hard question to answer because I’m not sure what “problem” means. Do I think that there is a perception among some people that individuals coming from outside this country residing in this state are creating increased crime rates and [contributing to] unemployment? I think there are people in this community who believe that. Do I think that’s based on reality? No.
But the perception is real and needs to be responded to. The problem is, our elected officials are not being thoughtful and pragmatic when they choose to respond to these fears and concerns, but they are adding to the hysteria by passing this kind of bill. And that’s another reason why the governor should veto this bill. Government should be thoughtful in their response to problems. It’s unacceptable and dangerous for our government, our elected officials, the Tennessee General Assembly, to respond — unfortunately usually out of political expediency — by passing these kinds of laws.
CP: The governor has spoken out against the legislature’s action to praise Arizona for its new immigration law. Do you expect that he’ll veto this bill?
HW: I can only hope that he will. He certainly understands [the negative effect it would have on] economic development. He certainly understands due process and equal treatment under the law. I hope he will consider this legislation, recognize its impact on Tennessee, and say that it is the wrong road to go down. It takes away the dignity and respect that all people
in this state deserve. But also, it could be very dangerous for economic development in this state.
CP: How so?
HW: As you know, Tennessee’s focus on economic development includes actively recruiting international companies to relocate to the state. It is important that Tennessee is seen as a forward-thinking, welcoming state that embraces newcomers and individuals with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. This legislation, which invites disparate treatment of minority groups and encourages racial profiling, will undoubtedly jeopardize the success of those recruitment efforts.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.