With little fanfare on Thursday evening, the General Assembly had before it three formerly controversial pieces of legislation that would affect immigrants and non-English speakers: a bill that would allow Tennessee businesses to enforce English-only policies; one that would require jailers in most counties to check the immigration status of every person they arrest; and one that would require local election officials to ask for citizenship verification before approving voter registrations.
The Senate version of the registration bill required actual documentation verified by election officials — a birth certificate or passport, for example — while the House version required only the applicant’s signature affirming that he or she is a citizen. (The House vote on whether to concur with the Senate occurred after press time.)
“Our legislators need to work on finding creative ways to integrate the immigrants that are here into our society and to urge the federal government to act on immigration reform,” said Elias Feghali, a spokesman for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. “But they’re content to create these bills that exploit people’s feelings about immigrants for political gain. It’s going to hurt us policy-wise.”
But when it came to the jail bill and the English-only workplace bill, the TIRRC did not get backing from some influential would-be partners.
Back in May, Senate Bill 1141, which would require county jailers to check the immigration status of detainees and report the unverifiables to federal authorities, was stridently opposed by the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association. (The House vote on whether to concur with the Senate occurred after press time.)
In a May 14 Tennessean story, Sumner County Sheriff Bob Barker, who chairs the association’s legislative committee, said it would lead to unnecessary detentions of people who simply weren’t carrying their documents. He also suggested that implementation of such a law could lead to racial profiling lawsuits. Feghali agreed with that assessment.
“The issue is that because jailers are in a position where they’re going to have to verify immigration status, which is quite complex, which changes constantly,” Feghali said, “you have educational institutions that hire someone on staff just to be an expert on immigration issues for their foreign exchange students.”
He said that this legislation is even more problematic than 287(g) immigration enforcement programs like the one in Davidson County (which the group also opposes). That program, which gives some deputies the power to verify the immigration statuses of arrestees and turn potential illegal immigrants over to federal authorities, is a codified federal/local partnership. SB1141 is not.
“This bill does not provide funding, access to federal databases, or any sort of training required to be able to verify immigration status,” Feghali said. “It leaves them in a position where they’re going to have to profile on the basis of the language they might speak or the way they look, or they can flood [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] with every single person’s information, bog down the system and leave it ineffective … It makes little sense. It appears as though our legislators don’t really care about the ability of Tennessee sheriffs to do their job or do it well.”
Still, the newly amended version of the bill added language requiring that “the Tennessee peace officer standards and training commission shall develop a standardized written procedure for verifying the citizenship status of individuals who are arrested, booked, or confined” in local jails. That, wrote Barker in an email to The City Paper, is enough for the Sheriffs’ Association to withdraw its opposition.
“The Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association is not opposed to the bill as amended to include training and procedural standards,” Barker wrote. “We worked with the legislators to include the amendments to minimize the possibility of racial profiling litigations.”
Oddly, the so-called “English-only workplace bill” in its current form — drafted in a House-Senate conference committee and approved in a 30-0 vote by the Senate on Thursday following House approval late last month — includes only one paragraph that’s actually about English-only workplace policies. The remaining five paragraphs all deal with volunteer rescue workers. Specifically, they prohibit businesses from firing or docking the pay of employees who can’t show up to work because they’re doing emergency volunteer service.
And while that part is hard to argue with, critics object to another modification. The original version of the bill specified that an English-only policy would not be enforceable during “bona fide meal period, a rest period, or any other break.” That was removed.
“We’re surprised,” Feghali said. “We had worked closely with [the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill] to ensure this bill was positive for Tennessee workers, and that it clarified federal law in a way that it would help business owners and protect multilingual workers.”
Hill did not return multiple requests for comment from The City Paper.
The old bill was replaced with one enabling English-only at any time an employer has a “legitimate business necessity” to require his or her employees to speak English. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce has in recent history been a major opponent of English-only legislation. Not so for this one.
“The chamber actually does not have a position on that piece of legislation because it shadows federal law,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Pepper.
That’s true. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s compliance manual, English-only policies are “justified by ‘business necessity’ if it is needed for an employer to operate safely or efficiently.”
But a footnote to that section shows there is some disagreement over what “business necessity” means. From the manual: “Courts are divided on the application of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, religion, sex, or national origin] to English-only rules and the validity of the EEOC guidelines.”
That ambiguity, said Feghali, is why the bill had been worded to specifically exclude breaks and casual conversation among employees.
“They’re putting small-business owners in a precarious position here. It’s exposing them to unnecessary legal liability,” he said. “If you’re going to use the terminology ‘business necessity,’ if that’s not clearly defined, that puts the onus on business owners to decide what that is, and that puts them in a position that opens them up to lawsuits.”