After Immigration Shaped Primary, Topic Not Gov. Lee Focus

BY JONATHAN MATTISE, NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee won a Republican primary fight last year that centered around which candidate was toughest on immigration. But during his early days in office, cracking down on immigration has not been the governor’s priority.

Instead, his administration has opposed two immigration bills by Republican Rep. Bruce Griffey. But it has couched his opposition not on humanitarian grounds, but in practical terms.

One proposal would bar babies born as U.S. citizens in Tennessee from receiving birth certificates if either parent is in the country illegally. The governor reasoned that he opposes using agencies tasked with administrative functions instead of enforcement to curb illegal immigration, spokeswoman Laine Arnold said.

Another proposal would have taxed international money transfers for people without driver’s licenses, which Griffey said could have helped fund President Donald Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall. Lee’s administration objected on principle, saying he opposes earmarks.

The governor hasn’t backed any changes to immigration laws during the ongoing legislative session in Tennessee, and it’s unclear whether any of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that dominated the campaign will translate into policy.

Griffey has several other proposals in mind, and the only one that has cleared a legislative panel so far would target landlords for renting to people in the U.S. illegally. The Lee administration hasn’t publicly weighed in on that or the others yet, but the governor did describe the broad approach he is taking recently.

“I’ll be working, and will always work with, the federal government to understand how it is that we can make certain that illegal immigration is enforced, the laws around illegal immigration are enforced, that’s my goal,” he said. “It is to follow the law that exists, and we’ll continue to do that.”

That varies from Lee’s position on anti-abortion legislation, where he has said he supports any proposal that reduces abortions in Tennessee.

Before the August GOP primary for governor, Lee and his opponents echoed Trump’s tough talk on immigration, pushing each other to the right. They all backed a new anti-sanctuary city law, which bans local government policies that block their law enforcement agencies from holding immigrants for possible deportation at federal request.

The GOP candidates also agreed that students whose parents brought or kept them in the country illegally should not be eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

“Why can’t politicians stop illegal immigration?” Lee said in one campaign ad. “As a businessman, it seems pretty clear to me. It’s about incentives. Driver’s licenses and free tuition for illegal aliens, lawless sanctuary cities. All policies that would make Tennessee a magnet for illegal immigration. I will oppose every one of them as governor.”

Tennessee doesn’t offer driver’s licenses or free or reduced tuition for people in the country illegally. And former Republican Gov. Haslam said sanctuary cities were already illegal in Tennessee before the 2018 anti-sanctuary bill, which Haslam let become law without his signature despite his objections.

Still, those topics were common talking points among the GOP gubernatorial contenders. Haslam even weighed in on the rhetoric, saying he wished they would talk about things a governor can control. In the last two years of office, Haslam posed for photos with immigrant children who were asking for the in-state tuition change, which he supported.

Once Lee earned the GOP nomination, immigration drifted to the back burner in the general election, which he won easily.

Aside from Griffey’s bills, Lee will have opportunities to better define his immigration priorities in Tennessee. GOP legislative leaders already have questioned whether Shelby County, which includes Memphis, is breaking the 2018 sanctuary cities ban. Lee said he has asked his legal team to look into it.

“I think this is a critical test for Gov. Lee and his administration about whether or not they really do value all Tennesseans,” Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition Policy Director Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus said.

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