Republicans and Tennessee businesses — best friends forever on nearly every issue — have found themselves at odds in the legislature over what to do about illegal immigration.
Up and down the ballot as usual in last year’s election campaigns, Republicans vowed to crack down on undocumented workers. It’s rhetoric that never has translated into strong action.
But then the GOP won whopping majorities in both the state House and Senate, and suddenly the political landscape changed. What once was improbable became all too likely. Republicans who won their offices with business help now are angrily denouncing these same allies on the immigration issue.
Their bills have begun advancing in the legislature after backroom negotiations to find common ground broke down.
“We don’t want to put undue burden on businesses,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said. “It’s not fair to ask them to do something the federal government hasn’t been able to do. On the other hand, clearly, we have heard that this issue is important to the citizens of this state, and we’re going to continue to work on it.”
The usually all-powerful Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business have been unable to stop any of the measures so far.
One would require the state’s employers to use the federal Department of Homeland Security’s E-Verify system to prove their employees are legally authorized to work in the United States. That’s a burden that could curtail job creation and punish companies that aren’t hiring undocumented workers, businesses say.
Chamber of commerce lobbyist Bradley Jackson said the bill would take many businesses by surprise if it takes effect, as written, the first of next year. It has cleared committees in both the House and Senate.
“Think of the small-business owners out there. We have learned through our research that 68 percent of them don’t know what E-Verify is. They have no idea. Here in six months we’re about to say, ‘You know what? If you don’t know what it is and you don’t use it, say hello to fines. Say goodbye to your business license.’ All we ask for is some fairness.”
To use the E-Verify system, all employers need do is go to an online form and type in the prospective worker’s Social Security number. But Jackson said 10 percent of the state’s employers don’t own computers.
“If there are 200,000 businesses in Tennessee, that means 20,000 do not have computers,” he said.
Jim Brown of the Tennessee chapter of the NFIB said his survey of 30 small-business owners found not one in support of the bill.
“NFIB is strongly opposed to illegal immigration, and like many of you, we are frustrated with the federal government’s erroneous policies and inaction,” Brown said. “That’s what’s causing the problem is federal policy. We all agree on that.”
At one contentious legislative hearing on the E-Verify bill, Brown quoted from survey responses from unidentified employers:
“This is just another costly mandate on business that looks good, smells bad and does very little to fix the problem. Only employers who want to be in compliance will follow these procedures,” one said.
That brought outrage from legislators, who also promised in the last election campaigns to focus on improving the economy.
An angry Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, who once publicly compared illegal immigrants to breeding rats, dressed down Brown at the hearing.
“Your business community keeps hiring them,” Todd said of undocumented workers. “They know they’re not legal. Y’all are as much to blame as everybody else. They hire them and they know they’re illegal because they know they’re cheap labor.”
He accused businesses of refusing to negotiate on the bill despite what he called the House leadership’s openness to compromise.
“We asked y’all to come up with some solutions, and you never came back to us. Now, you know that’s right. We asked you to come talk to us. You didn’t come talk to either one of us.”
House GOP leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga chimed in: “We have been working on this for months. I own a business. Y’all need to get serious about this. I think there’s a little bit of foot-dragging on this. We’re going to pass these bills out just like they are if y’all don’t sit down at the table and work something out.”
Nashville Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Democratic political caucus, joined in the browbeating. He recalled his difficulties last year after he reported what he said were illegal immigrants helping build Nashville’s new convention center.
“They made me look like an idiot in the paper. … But if I told them there was a child molester down there, they would have investigated that,” Turner said. “If I told them there was a murderer down there, they would have gone and investigated that. There’s no enforcement on the books.
“Everybody wants to pass the buck,” Turner continued. “Nobody wants to do anything on this. You keep talking about mandates. You’re only against mandates when it’s on you. We put mandates on people up here all the time. That’s what we do. … We’ve got a problem here in this state. We’ve got a problem in this country that nobody wants to address. I lay awake at night thinking about this. We’ve got to do something.”
Also in the Republican anti-immigration package is an Arizona-style crackdown giving police unprecedented new authority to question and detain suspects.
Under the bill, police must have other grounds for stopping someone — say, for a traffic violation — but then they may inquire about that person’s immigration status if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that person is here illegally. It requires immigrants to prove that they are authorized to be in the country or risk state charges.
The ACLU has vowed to sue to overturn that bill if it becomes law, saying it would spur racial profiling and discrimination. Business interests also have expressed reservations about that bill for fear it would embarrass the state and chase away convention and tourist business.
Arizona has lost an estimated $490 million in tourism revenue this year and spent $1.5 million so far defending its law in court.
But what’s more likely to defeat the bill is the estimate of its cost to state and local governments. That’s nearly $5 million in the first year and nearly $3 million every year thereafter, according to the staff of the legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee.
The staff estimates an additional 7,447 undocumented aliens would be detained each year if the bill becomes law. Most of the cost would come from hiring and training police. The Department of Safety, for example, would need to hire 24 new troopers, officials there say.
With cuts looming in the state’s recession-battered budget, that cost spells trouble for the Arizona-style bill. Lawmakers will either have to give up on it or water it down so much that it’s all but pointless. With lawmakers trying to keep their campaign promises on immigration, that makes the E-Verify bill more important.
“I hope the business community does get fired up over this bill,” Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, said. “I hope they hate it to the point that they write their congressmen. Then maybe Congress will do something about this problem.”