Haslam approves bill authorizing longer criminal sentences for illegal immigrants; Democratic leader ‘disappointed’

Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law Friday a bill authorizing judges to give illegal immigrants longer sentences that U.S. citizens when they are convicted of felonies. The bill (SB1260) got final approval on the last day of the legislative session (May 10) and has inspired some criticism – including talk of lawsuits to challenge it.

Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, issued a statement critical of the measure Friday after Haslam signed it (without comment). Here it is:

Today I was disappointed Governor Haslam signed into law a bill to give judges authority to enhance prison sentences based on the defendant’s national origin. SB 1260 would encourage judges to consider where someone was born when they mete out prison time. Thus, a criminal defendant born in Mexico can expect to be treated differently and more harshly than a criminal defendant born in Tennessee, even if both commit identical crimes. I don’t believe any other state has a law like this currently in place and courts elsewhere have struck down similar efforts when they have been tried.

This kind of bill may make for good headlines and give the veneer of toughness on crime. But, really, it just sends a powerfully negative signal to those born in Mexico, whether in Tennessee legal or not. In fact, the Governor has sent a powerful signal to all Tennesseans. The message from the Governor’s act is that there is real reason to be a little more suspicious about the fairness of our judicial system and whether it will be faithful to the rule of law. Our democratic institutions and our traditions have required the rejection of different treatment based on national origin. But, today, those traditions are vanishing.

Excerpt from a Tennessean story last month:

Immigration attorneys say the new law is the latest case in which states have tried to implement the “mass deportation” rhetoric pushed by President Donald Trump, highlighted by his travel ban executive orders and pledge to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

“Tennessee is unfortunately following in the Trump mass deportation movement right now,” said Melisa Keaney, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in California.

… The new measure would require judges to consider federal immigration status as a felony sentencing enhancement factor, and use their discretion in making that determination. Enhancements can add between one and 10 years to prison sentences, depending on the offense.

Keaney said immigration status is a federal civil matter, not something states can legally determine, and similar laws have been struck down as unconstitutional in other states… Keaney said the immigration law center would attempt to intervene with court action to prevent the law from taking effect, and expects other organizations to also try and stop the provision.

But the bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said “it’s consistent with most Tennesseans’ concern for our safety.”

“I had more extreme legislation proposed to me by constituents,” he said, adding the bill is partly related to the state’s lawsuit against the federal government over refugee resettlement.

Norris said he had legislative legal staff and district attorneys review the legislation and they did not voice any concern over the bill.

“It’s just another tool in the court’s kit that the court may use at its discretion,” Norris said.

Note: The House sponsor was Rep. Ron Gant, R-Rossville. It passed the Senate 28-3; the House approved 66-17.

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