Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee Enacts Law Requiring State Law Enforcement Officers to Assist Federal Immigration Authorities

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee enacted a law on Thursday defining requirements for law enforcement officers within the state to work with federal immigration authorities when they encounter illegal immigrant suspects.

The legislation, states law enforcement agencies and officials in Tennessee shall “communicate with the appropriate federal official regarding the immigration status of any individual, including reporting knowledge that a particular alien is not lawfully present in the United States or otherwise cooperate with the appropriate federal official in the identification, apprehension, detention, or removal of aliens not lawfully present in the United States.”

The Republican-led bill passed in the Tennessee state House in March and in the state Senate last week. Mr. Lee signed the bill into law on April 11, and it goes into effect on July 1.

“When there is an interaction with law enforcement, it’s important that the appropriate authorities are notified of the status of that individual,” the Republican governor told reporters Thursday, upon signing the bill into law. “I think that makes sense. So, I’m in support of that legislation.”

Bill Comes Amid Growing US Immigration Challenges

The Tennessee state legislation comes about amid record-high numbers of illegal immigrant encounters along the U.S. borders in recent years.

In January, the Republican-led U.S. House Judiciary Committee estimated federal immigration authorities had proactively released around 3.3 million inadmissible aliens into the United States in the first three years of President Joe Biden’s administration.

As of a January estimate by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), around 1.8 million “gotaways” had entered the country during the Biden administration. The term “gotaways” refers to those who enter the United States outside the designated legal ports of entry, evading border security measures and personnel.

What The Tennessee Law Will Do

Tennessee Republican state Sen. Brent Taylor, the bill’s Senate sponsor, insisted this legislation does not require local law enforcement agencies to proactively look for suspected illegal immigrants, but simply requires them to notify federal immigration authorities when they do encounter such illegal immigrant suspects.

“This is not going down and hunting somebody who looks Hispanic, pulling them over and demanding papers,” Mr. Taylor said.

The new legislation strengthens a law already on the books in Tennessee since 2018, which authorized law enforcement officials in the state to contact federal immigration authorities. Mr. Taylor has said his bill changes the requirements for Tennessee law enforcement officers from a “may report” a “must report” stance.

The new legislation would essentially preempt municipalities within the state from declaring themselves as “sanctuary” jurisdictions, a term used to describe local governments that intentionally limit or outright refuse to assist federal immigration authorities, namely U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in finding and detaining illegal immigrations who may be eligible for deportation.

In 2019, the Shelby County Attorney advised the county Sheriff that Tennessee state laws at the time did not curtail “sanctuary” policies that may exist in their county.

Mr. Taylor, whose district rests within part of Shelby County, said in a March statement that “we already have too many criminals in Shelby County, and if someone is committing a crime who shouldn’t be here in the first place, then that individual must be removed from our community.”

Critics of the new bill have warned that it could make illegal immigrants hesitant to report criminal activity or otherwise avoid interactions with law enforcement officials in the state.

“We rely on members of our community, including immigrants, some of whom are victims, others witnesses, for cooperation and information to further investigations,” Metro Nashville Police Department spokesperson Don Aaron said as the bill advanced through the state House last month. “The concern is this legislation could dissuade cooperation with our officers among some Nashville residents.”

How many fewer illegal immigrants in Tennessee will choose to interact with law enforcement officials in the state remains to be seen. A legislative fiscal analysis for the bill says “most, if not all, law enforcement agencies already communicate with the federal government regarding an individual’s immigration status,” citing information from the Tennessee police and sheriffs associations.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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