Dewayne Brown says the new wave of immigration has made him feel unwelcome in his own community.
“This is my country. I fought for this country. I hold this country deeply in my heart,” said Brown, 40, of Hermitage. “I am not going to let illegal immigrants come in and intimidate us.”
His sentiments are held by many in Middle Tennessee—part of a broader national chorus calling out for something to be done about illegal immigration. The National Conference of State Legislatures last week forecast that illegal immigration would be the hottest issue for legislators across the country this year.
It will be against that backdrop that Tennessee’s lawmakers gather today to begin their 2007 session. As the 132 legislators pour into the Capitol from near and far, from Tiptonville to Turtletown, they face mounting pressure from the public to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants to the Volunteer State.
For one thing, lawmakers say they will renew their efforts this year to cut off state-funded social services to illegal immigrants and give driver’s license exams in English only.
In fact, most of the immigration legislation that didn’t pass last year probably will be reintroduced in the new session, sponsors said. Those include bills that would allow local law enforcement agencies to check an immigrant’s legal status and to more aggressively punish businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
“We need to demagnetize the state. We need to stop Tennessee from being a magnet for illegal immigrants,” said Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin.
Candidates from both parties made a campaign issue in the recent midterm elections of the need to do more about immigration—a fact that led state Sen. Bill Ketron to predict that some of the bills that failed last year will pass this time.
“I think the atmosphere will be better,” the Murfreesboro Republican said.
Ketron expects to reintroduce all of his immigration bills from last year, including one that would require the state’s driver’s license exam to be given only in English.
Don Dillehay, 48, of Nashville, says he is in favor of English-only exams because he doesn’t think taxpayer dollars should be spent on bilingual materials.
“I don’t think any immigrant should come in this country without knowing English,” Dillehay said.
Other bills would limit the acceptable forms of ID used to renew car registrations and deny health care and social services to those here illegally.
Feds called unresponsive
Some lawmakers said they felt compelled to make changes to state government to stop illegal immigration because the federal government hasn’t done enough about it.
“We have an irresponsible and irresponsive federal bureaucracy that is unable to deal with the issue of illegal immigrants,” said state Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Goodlettsville, the sponsor of the only immigration bill that the legislature passed last year out of the 19 that were introduced.
That bill, now a law that went into effect Jan. 1, bans companies that do work for the state from hiring illegal immigrants.
Pro-immigration groups are gearing up to try to stop a bill that would demand that all state business be done only in English.
“If the state is considered unfriendly to foreigners, are companies like Nissan and Toyota going to feel welcome in Tennessee?” asked Anthony Lucas, president of LaVision, a Spanish advertising company.
That bill also hasn’t been introduced, and none of the legislators surveyed by the newspaper said they planned to propose such legislation.
No matter what bills are introduced, many of the supporters of tougher immigration laws see the political process as failing them.
“Everyone will tiptoe around the issues, and in the end they will just sweep it under the rug,” Brown said.