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Tom Humphrey
By Tom Humphrey February 18, 2012

Not quite a crackdown on hiring illegal aliens

On June 29, 2010, a Haslam campaign news release applauded the signing of House Bill 670, which requires Tennessee jailers to alert federal authorities of an arrested person in the U.S. illegally or whose status can"t be determined. He used the opportunity to address complaints about companies that employ undocumented workers.

"As governor, I will enforce the laws on the books and will cut off the supply of jobs going to illegal immigrants by ensuring that only legal residents are being hired by Tennessee employers,” Haslam said.

As governor, Haslam doesn"t really have much to do with enforcing laws on the books. That is up to law enforcement agencies and, in matters of immigration law, the lead role goes to federal agencies – primarily Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Some cities and counties have special arrangements with ICE for detaining and handling illegal immigrants through what is known as the 287(g) ICE Access Program. The governor has no oversight over federal, city or county law enforcement.

The governor does, however, have the Highway Patrol under his jurisdiction and the patrol reached a 287(g) arrangement with ICE back in 2008 under former Gov. Phil Bredesen. It requires troopers to report suspected illegal immigrants to ICE and turn over to the federal agency those who are detained. The bill Haslam was applauding on the campaign trail, which became Public Chapter 1141 when signed by Bredesen, calls on jailers statewide to check the immigration status of persons detained. But it doesn"t come under the governor"s responsibilities.

Setting aside the pledge to enforce laws that governors don"t enforce as campaign hyperbole, the state"s chief executive does have the authority to propose and push new laws. Has Haslam followed through on this promise to "cut off the supply of jobs going to illegal immigrants by ensuring that only legal residents are being hired?”

During his first year in office, the only notable legislation on this front was HB1378, which Haslam did not propose. But the governor, according to House sponsor Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, and others, did get very much involved. Carr was initially critical of the governor for opposing the original version of the legislation, but ultimately praised him for supporting a compromised version and including money to fund it in his budget.

As originally filed, the bill would have required Tennessee employers to check the federal E-Verify system before hiring a new employee to make sure the individual is a legal resident of the United States. Lobbyists for business interests objected to the original bill as overly burdensome, especially on smaller companies, and as raising the threat of inappropriate penalties.

With the governor"s backing, the bill was amended substantially to soften penalties and the procedures for checking to see if businesses were following the law. The biggest change declared that E-Verify need not be consulted at all if the prospective employee can produce a driver"s license.

Haslam signed the revised bill, officially known as the Tennessee Lawful Employment Act, into law on June 7, 2011. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

Donna Locke, an immigration control activist who pushed for passage of the measure in its original state, said in an email to us that the final product accomplished virtually nothing.

"Haslam signed into law a hiring bill that provides intentional legal loopholes and liability escapes for employers of illegal labor. Illegal labor means illegal aliens and also lawfully present noncitizens who do not have a federal permit to work in the United States,” she wrote in an email.

"The state Department of Human Resources is ‘strongly encouraging" all state agencies to use E-Verify, but verification is not required; and Haslam, as far as I know, has not issued any executive order requiring E-Verify use or any verification of work documents by employers, including the state,” she said.

Haslam balked at backing other legislation prompted as means to combat illegal immigration. These included HB1380, which was modeled on a controversial anti-immigration law enacted in Arizona, and HB1379,  which would require state and local government officials to verify that applicants for public benefits, including welfare, are legal residents of the United States. Both bills failed last year and haven"t been brought up again this year.

The governor, then, has not really lived up in actions to the boldness of his words on the campaign trail. He really has no laws to enforce and the supply of jobs to illegal immigrants certainly has not been "cut off.”

Still, the modified E-Verify bill does require the showing of a driver"s license to prospective employees and that is a step toward ensuring legal residency.

While some activists against illegal immigration might consider this a promise broken, we rate it as a Compromise.

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