State Police Board Drops Immigration Screening Program in County Jails

Nashville, TN

At least one state has backed off from a plan to make local law enforcement handle immigration matters on top of their other duties. The Tennessee Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission dropped a policy that would require jail employees to ask about the birthplace and citizenship of suspects after they are booked. The state had only begun implementing the policy two weeks earlier. The decision, reached unanimously by the Commission on January 13, came after a Nashville immigration advocate threatened a lawsuit over various alleged open meetings violations during the process of formulating the policy. The rules allegedly grew out of meetings that were not open to the public and did not include input from county sheriffs’ departments.

The program, which only took effect on January 1, simply required jail employees to ask two questions of people once they were booked into the jail: where they were born, and whether they were United States citizens. Tennessee legislators passed a law last year that ordered the Commission to develop guidelines for handling immigration issues in the state’s county jails. This policy was the result.

Rather than face the lawsuit, the Commission decided to eliminate the program. The state will instead participate in the federal Secure Communities Program, which allows local law enforcement to share fingerprints and other biometric information with federal immigration authorities. Federal officials have access to multiple databases from various agencies containing criminal and immigration background information. Why the state of Tennessee initially opted to run its own program rather than use the existing federal system is not clear.

The Secure Communities Program has its own share of critics and detractors, of course. It has led to numerous allegations of inaccuracy and incorrect identifications, and it raises privacy concerns. Perhaps most notoriously, the program contributed to the accidental deportation of an American citizen to Colombia, as we previously reported in this immigration blog.

Sheriffs in Tennessee seem relieved by the Commission’s decision, according to the Tennessean. At least some sheriffs viewed the program as an additional burden, and they welcome the chance to turn responsibility for enforcing immigration laws over to federal officials. Authority over immigration policy and enforcement is placed with the federal government by the U.S. Constitution, so it is not at all unusual for state law enforcement not to deal with such issues.

Other states have sought to insert local law enforcement into the system of immigration laws. Arizona and Alabama have the most infamous state laws, but the impact of these laws reaches outside their state lines. As some states have sought to toughen immigration enforcement at a local level, the Obama administration has sought to focus on known violent criminals and threats to national security over people who may have simply overstayed a visa. Competing goals at different levels of government have already caused conflict. Immigration policy has a national reach, and any one state’s attempt to control immigration within its own borders will inevitably affect other states, often in unforeseen ways.

Ohio immigration visa lawyer Gus Shihab helps people understand and navigate the U.S. immigration system, which includes the constantly-changing politics of our immigration laws. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us through our website or at (800) 625-3404.

More Blog Posts

Controversial Arizona Sheriff Stripped of Authority to Conduct Immigration Screening, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, January 11, 2012
Supreme Court Will Consider Controversial Immigration Law, Immigration Visa Lawyer Blog, December 15, 2011
Photo credit: Nashville, Tennessee 1 by hortongrou on stock.xchng.