Anti-Sanctuary Law Stirs Bias Against Tennessee Latinos

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) – The anti-sanctuary city law that went into effect in Tennessee Jan. 1 has left one man’s friends and family in fear in their hometown.

The 20-year-old man spends his time at home in Chattanooga studying subjects like English and relaxes by listening to Ed Sheeran and The Weeknd because progressive ossifying fibrodysplasia, a rare disease that converts the body’s soft tissue into bone, limits his mobility. Although he is a U.S. citizen, he relies on his mother, who is in the country from Mexico without legal permission, for care.

Due to the immigration status of his mother, Courthouse News is keeping the man anonymous.

The Tennessee law is designed to curtail any sanctuary policies in its cities, such as those that would  prevent police officers from asking about a person’s immigration status or require the Department of Homeland Security to demonstrate probable cause when asking local law enforcement to hold an immigrant suspected of breaking immigration law.

“I think it’s not a good idea. Because they hurt many people. And there are people like me,” the man wrote in Spanish in an email to Courthouse News.

He has spent two years trying to obtain residency for his mother, whom he relies on to sit up, to walk, and to sit down.

The Tennessee legislature passed HB 2315 on April 25. A month later, then-Governor Bill Haslam allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

In a May 21 letter, Haslam called the bill “a solution looking for a problem [that] has primarily served to stir up fear on both sides of the issue.” He noted that the state already prohibits sanctuary cities.

According to HB 2315, if a chancery court finds a city has a sanctuary-like policy – formally or informally – the city won’t receive grants from the Department of Economic and Community Development until it strikes the policy.

“Allowing illegal immigrants to reside within this state undermines federal immigration laws and state laws allocating available resources,” Tennessee’s law states.

On New Year’s Eve, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition called the law that was hours away from going into effect “one of the most extreme, anti-immigrant laws in the country.”

Incoming Governor Bill Lee told the Associated Press before his inauguration that he directed his legal team to investigate Shelby County – the county in which Memphis sits – for possibly breaking the law because he said it wasn’t complying with ICE’s requests for detainers.

Meanwhile in Chattanooga, individuals who work with immigrant communities describe a devolution from a welcoming city to one where families are preparing for the worst.

According to Vivian Lozano Sterchi, outreach coordinator of La Paz, a Latino community organization in the Chattanooga area, 71 percent of 450 Latinos surveyed said they felt welcome there in 2015.

Lozano added that Chattanooga boasts a diverse Latino population from many Central and South American countries, including first-generation immigrants, families who lived among the state’s mountains for generations, and professionals who work in the city’s major corporations. A large indigenous Guatemalan population calls Chattanooga home, too. 

“I think families are just having more conversations about what they need to do if something happens,” Lozano said, “conversations that I don’t think they were having with their family or their children before. … So having really tough conversations about what they needed to do if a parent was detained or if both parents were detained and deported.”

Last year, La Paz held four clinics that helped 150 families obtain power of attorneys and passports for family members.

La Paz also reached out to the Chattanooga Police Department for clarification on how the law would change policing in the city.

“It’s been good in the sense that the police have made it clear they are here to protect and serve all of Chattanooga,” Lozano said. “And so, that means everybody.”

“The new law shouldn’t have any effect on CPD policies since we don’t have a policy that addresses immigration,” Eliza Myzal, spokeswoman for the Chattanooga Police Department, wrote in an email.

Myzal did not respond to a list of follow-up questions.

According to an open records request Courthouse News made of the City of Chattanooga Police Department, its emails never mentioned the city creating a 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the time the law was passed until December.

ICE runs the 287(g) program, which delegates some of the tasks of enforcing immigration law to members of a community’s law enforcement agency. According to ICE’s website, the Knox County Sheriff’s Department is the only agency in Tennessee with such an agreement.

Before the law went into effect, Chattanooga Chief of Police David Roddy agreed to meet with the Latino community for questions and answers, according to emails obtained by Courthouse News.

“I would love the opportunity to engage and hopefully settle anxiety and fears,” Roddy wrote in a Nov. 8 email to La Paz.

Courthouse News made a similar records request to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, the county in which Chattanooga is the county seat, in November. The department has not yet fulfilled the request.

When Courthouse News reached out to ICE to learn how the law affects their enforcement of immigration law in Tennessee, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said, “We want to work with everyone to the extent that they are willing to work with us.”

Policies that restrict local law enforcement agencies from working with the agency generally do “a disservice” to public and officer safety, Cox added.

Because local law enforcement focuses on local laws, Cox said those who are in the country without legal permission should not have to worry about contacting them to report that they were a victim of or witness to a crime.

“I agree with activist groups that state there is fear in the community. There is,” Cox said. “I would simply state that that fear is based on misinformation and misunderstanding, that state and local law enforcement agencies have no authority to arrest a person based on their immigration status.”

But Chattanooga-based immigration attorney Terry Olsen has noticed a change in the city’s policing.

“I already saw a change last fall in attitudes of officers,” Olsen said, speaking from his office overlooking downtown Chattanooga. “But now with actions, you can really just see that if someone is here and they’re an international, the police department is gonna be looking into their status and they’re going to be calling ICE for a hold or to look into it if they think there’s an issue with the status.”

He tells clients and immigrants to be prepared to be stopped while driving in the state.

Olsen believes the law is just another indicator of changing attitudes in the state.  

During the 2018 midterm election, the state made Marsha Blackburn – who campaigned on a “build-the-wall” stance – its second U.S. senator.  

“I just don’t think this law addresses the complexities of the actual results of this law,” Olsen said. “And I really don’t like the state telling every city what to do here without the proper training.”

He believes the law will lead to civil rights abuses, such as officers initiating traffic stops of drivers of apparent Latino ancestry for additional scrutiny.

 “I would like to think that there’s going to be some pushback, organized pushback,” Olsen said. “But I don’t have a lot of hope for it.”

Kevin Lessmiller contributed to this report.

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