BY JONATHAN MATTISE AND ADRIAN SAINZ, NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s top Republican lawmakers say the state’s biggest county, which includes Memphis, isn’t following a new law that prohibits local authorities from requiring a warrant or probable cause before complying with federal immigration detainers.
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office said this week that authorities won’t detain anyone being released from jail without a warrant or probable cause because the county attorney advised that the new law doesn’t apply to them. But it will keep notifying federal authorities when noncitizens are booked.
The announcement drew a swift rebuke from Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker nominee Glen Casada, who helped push through the law that took effect Tuesday.
“Shelby County needs to reevaluate their position,” McNally said in a statement. “As outlined in the law, continued refusal will result in the forfeit of state economic and community development grants which would negatively affect the local economy in Shelby County.”
Casada said the sheriff’s statement calls for a “serious discussion.”
“The sheriff would be working directly against the will of Shelby Countians and the legislature if he decided to disobey state law in this way,” Casada said in a statement.
The Republican-led Legislature passed the law last year banning so-called sanctuary policies during a heated election cycle that focused on immigration. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who leaves office this month, let it become law without his signature, calling it “a solution looking for a problem” in a state without any sanctuary cities and where they were already outlawed.
Incoming Republican Gov. Bill Lee praised the legislation on the campaign trail.
The law’s enactment this week drew a scathing legal opinion by Shelby County, deeming its requirements unenforceable against the county “due to vagueness.”
County Attorney Marlinee Iverson wrote that the county and the cities within it do not have sanctuary policies, and added that the statute “appears to require some actor to detain individuals indefinitely without a warrant or probable cause … based on nothing more than a request of some kind from the Department of Homeland Security or a successor agency.”
“The language in the statute is unclear to the extent that it can be interpreted as requiring absurd and/or potentially unconstitutional conduct by any law enforcement agency,” Iverson wrote in the opinion.
Enforcement of the law calls for a local citizen to sue and a judge to rule that a policy in his or her government is in violation.
State economic development officials haven’t crafted any guidance on the new law, but have indicated they plan to follow it.
The issue hits home in Shelby County, where Spanish-language reporter Manuel Duran was arrested, detained by immigration authorities and could still be deported after he was granted a stay as a federal court hears his case.
Duran was running the Memphis Noticias news outlet when he was arrested in April during a demonstration that coincided with days of remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis. The protest was related to U.S. immigration policies.
The district attorney’s office dropped charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of a highway, but the reporter was picked up by immigration agents after he was released from jail. Duran, who is originally from El Salvador, was taken into the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and placed in a detention facility in Louisiana.
Immigration officials said he had a pending deportation order from 2007 after failing to show for a scheduled court date. Duran’s lawyers have said he came to the U.S. without permission in 2006 after receiving death threats related to reporting on corruption in El Salvador. Duran maintains he never received any notice to appear before a U.S. judge in 2007.
The Shelby County’s sheriff’s office said in April that Duran was asked about his country of birth and citizenship when he was arrested. Duran’s information was provided to ICE and immigration officials attended his court proceeding on the state charges, the sheriff’s office has said.
Later that April, the county attorney’s office ruled that ICE’s 48-hour detainer requests were likely unconstitutional, and the sheriff’s office stopped holding noncitizens suspected of living in the U.S. illegally in jail past their scheduled release dates.
Mauricio Calvo, executive director of the immigrant-advocacy group Latino Memphis, applauded the county attorney’s determination and chided lawmakers for threatening to withhold state money under a law he argues is unconstitutional.
“They should be challenged in court for punishing us and asking us to do something that is illegal,” said Calvo, whose group is helping Duran with his legal defense.
Sainz reported from Memphis, Tennessee.
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