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Tennessee eyes federal debate on immigration reform
Tennessee Correspondent

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With the end of the 104th General Assembly looming sometime this month, one reasonably expects a flurry of bills to be shuffling among Tennessee legislators for debate.

Immigration rules and reform, however, is not much among them. As of late last week, there was only a handful of bills kicking around the legislature, and those were on a “wait-and-see” status.

“It’s not a burning issue in the General Assembly,” said Rep. Frank Buck (D-Dist. 40) last Friday, explaining many legislators – like him – are waiting on the federal government to make its next move.

Buck favors better border controls, coupled with the Congressional compromise proposal, which would set a timetable for immigrants illegally in the United States to either take steps toward obtaining citizenship or be deported. For an individual state to enact rules is difficult, he pointed out, because it lacks uniformity.

“Suppose we do one thing, and Alabama does something else,” Buck said. “Where does that leave us?”

Because agriculture is such a cash cow for Tennessee, farmers and livestock producers here – as around the country – rely on less expensive immigrant labor to stay competitive. But Tennessee Farm Bureau lobbyist Rhedona Rose agreed the General Assembly seems to be waiting for Congress to take action.

She pointed out farmers’ concerns are chiefly with documentation and identification. These sorts of things are of great importance to anyone hiring a non-native employee, since the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) requires employers to verify each new worker.

“Our interest is more along the lines of … there’s a concern among farmers whether what they’re being shown is legal or not,” Rose said of paperwork immigrants present.

She admitted there is a big need for temporary agricultural workers at the national level, and certainly Farm Bureau would not want the state to be more stringent than the federal government on measures regarding immigrant employment.

Active bills before the Tennessee General Assembly are concerned with penalizing business people who knowingly receive services from illegal immigrants; better identification to vote; defining public welfare benefits; and training state highway patrol officers to enforce immigration and customs laws. (Buck, for one, is hesitant about the latter – while he believes a local officer should report immigration violations to the INS, he is not certain one should be enforcing in place of INS.)

Perhaps the one bill with assurance of passage before the Assembly adjourns is House Joint Resolution 729, to establish a committee to study the effects of illegal immigration in Tennessee. Rep. Mike Turner (D-Dist. 51) filed his proposal in December. It’s a simple one and self-explanatory.

“There’s a lot of mess out there,” he said, as well as misperception about the role of illegals on the state’s economy.

Though many think immigrants are draining TennCare (the state replacement of Medicaid) and not paying taxes, Turner said the truth may differ somewhat; trouble is, legislators can’t make good decisions without good information.

“We’re just trying to shake the myths from the facts, shake out what’s true, and come back with something after the summer,” he said.

The Assembly must debate the state’s 2006-07 budget before voting on the committee because there is some cost associated with holding meetings for it.

Turner explained information on illegals is difficult to come by for obvious reasons – “Farmers are kind of coy about this,” he said, especially.

For that reason, he wants the committee to include agricultural business people, as well as representatives of the hospitality industry – another beneficiary of immigrant labor – and those working in public school systems. He is interested in all effects immigrant labor has on the state, benefit as well as cost.

Turner believes restricting jobs to naturalized citizens and immigrants with current visas is key, since it appears to him many Mexicans and Central Americans come to the U.S. to earn a better living.

“It’s not a slap at any immigrant,” he said. “I respect them for trying to find a job. But we’ve got too many coming in.”

This farm news was published in the May 10, 2006 issue of Farm World.