Some educators and advocates are concerned that a new bill aimed at curbing illegal immigration could lead to parents pulling their children out of school. The measure, if signed by the Governor, would require law enforcement to comply with federal immigration authorities, which opponents say could virtually turn officers inside schools into immigration agents.
It was that fear which drove hundreds of people to protest in front of the state Capitol last week, in one of the largest immigration demonstrations in recent years.
They were speaking out against HB2315, a bill which would require local police to comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests. Cities which fail to do so would lose out on certain state grants.
But opponents say it also empowers officers to ask about immigration status, even upon routine encounters — and they say that includes school resource officers and campus police.
Jazmin Ramirez works with middle schoolers at an after school program in Nashville. She says families are concerned that minor behavioral issues at school, reporting a crime or even picking up their children from school could result in deportation.
“They’re terrified of even sending their kids to school. If this becomes a law, we would see a lot of what happened in Morristown,” says Ramirez.
She is referring to a massive raid at an East Tennessee meatpacking plant last month. The day after, more than 500 students failed to show up to school.
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which also organized the Nashville protest, is still on the ground in Morristown. Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director, says the town is still trying to process how to move forward. More than 160 children had at least one parent detained.
While the current bill doesn’t expressly state that police officers must ask for immigration status, it does prohibit policies — official or not — that protect undocumented people.
Many are worried that broad definition could affect a number of measures currently in place.
In Nashville, Metro Police have no official policy in the books prohibiting officers from asking victims of a crime for proof of immigration status — but they don’t. “Current immigration status is irrelevant to MNPD action or duty," says Kris Mumford, a spokesperson for the department.
Mumford adds that the police department has worked for years to build relationships with all immigrant communities in hopes that they will not be afraid to ask for help.
One example is “El Protector” Program, which began in 2004. It includes youth camps, soccer tournaments and festivals. Sgt. Rafael Fernandez and Officer Gilbert Ramirez regularly make appearances in Spanish-language radio stations.
Mumford says the program provides crime victims and witnesses with trusted police contacts, and has been featured as a model among U.S. law enforcement agencies for its outreach in the Latino community.
In a written statement to WPLN, Rep. Jay Reedy, who sponsored the bill, says it has been misrepresented. The Middle Tennessee Republican says “the legislature's intent is to make sure that our communities did not put the rights of criminal aliens above the safety of Tennesseans.” He says it accomplishes that by tightening an anti-sanctuary city policy that has existed since 2009.
WPLN followed up with questions asking specifically how certain portions of the bill, as written, might affect students and others who come into contact with police for non-criminal interactions. We did not receive a response.
Those affected are still unclear on how their lives will change — but they are scared, says Jill Speering of the Metro Nashville Board of Education. She says the distraction is already apparent.
“Not only does it impact our immigrant children, it also impacts their friends. And it impacts teachers,” says Speering. “Students see that their friends are fearful and the whole community is disturbed. When that happens learning is very difficult to achieve.”
Speering, who was an educator for three decades, says she’s signed a letter — along with a number of teachers from across the state — asking Governor Bill Haslam to veto the legislation. Once he receives the bill, Haslam will have ten days to make a decision.