A measure that would require sheriff's departments in Tennessee to hold people suspected of being in the country illegally — even when sheriffs have evidence that they're not — is making its way through the state legislature.
It's being described as a tightening up of a 2009 Tennessee law that banned so-called "sanctuary cities," municipalities that refuse to comply with federal immigration law. But some groups, including those representing immigrants and law enforcement, say the proposal could lead to citizens and legal residents being held unnecessarily.
The issue centers on immigration detainers, formal requests sent by the Department of Homeland Security asking law enforcement to hold onto people suspected to be in the country illegally rather than releasing them on bail. These are often sent to sheriff's departments, which operate jails, after people are arrested on misdemeanors.
Sheriffs are typically asked to keep detainees for 48 hours. And although the time frequently runs longer — because weekends and holidays don't count toward the limit — most sheriff's departments have no problem abiding by detainers, says Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association.
But they do sometimes need the flexibility to release people especially in cases of mistaken identity. Once in custody, sheriffs sometimes discover that the names of the people they've been asked to detain don't match information sent by ICE, or they have a different birthday.
In those cases, Tennessee sheriffs have been free to use their discretion. Ashe says the proposal in front of lawmakers, Senate Bill 2332/House Bill 2315, would disrupt that relationship.
"I mean, the sanctuary city conversation was started just a few years ago," Ashe told lawmakers. "But sheriffs have been enforcing these detainers for years."
Immigration groups and other critics also worry the legislation could lead to racial profiling, as well as litigation. Sheriff's departments could be sued if they hold people past the point when they'd ordinarily be released.
But Tennessee lawmakers say the risk of litigation is an argument for the measure. By passing a state law, the state government would bear responsibility if people are detained unfairly, they say.
The Senate is scheduled to vote on the proposal Wednesday, and the House could by next week.