A local chapter of a statewide activist group claims that a new Tennessee law has resulted in a tenfold increase in the number of inmates being held for federal immigration authorities.
However, Sheriff Randall Boyce said he is simply following the new rules, confirming that many more individuals are being turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As of the first of the year, Public Chapter 1112 now requires jailers in Tennessee to report those without legal documentation to ICE and the Department of Homeland Security.
Each person taken into custody in Tennessee has two questions posed to them: "Were you born here," and "Are you in this country legally?" If the answer is no, then that individual will be reported to the federal agencies.
A press release by SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment), asserts that the number of Bedford County inmates with an ICE hold on their record has increased tenfold since 2010.
"As of March 1, 2011, at least 20 people were being held under an ICE designation," the press release said. "About one year ago, February 28, 2010, there were 2 people being held due to an ICE designation."
When asked about this claim, Boyce said it's a new law, "and that's what we're doing.
"Every illegal, or someone born in another country, is run through ICE just like they're supposed to be," Boyce told the T-G. He also confirmed that his department has been holding more people for ICE agents due to the new state law.
"Before, we didn't do that, now we're doing it. We weren't supposed to before, now we are," the sheriff said. "A year ago, they were just released ... but now the law says we have to run them through ICE, and then they come and get them if they want them."
Boyce said they will hold the individuals in custody for 48 hours, excluding weekends and holidays, and if federal officials do not come and pick them up, then they are set free.
For example, if a person is arrested on a Friday, the 48 hours begins on Monday, the sheriff explained.
"That's what they told us to do, and that's what we're doing," Boyce said
A group of Bedford County SOCM members said in the press release they are gathering to lobby against more legislation they describe as "anti-immigrant bills that weaken Tennessee communities and economy."
Representatives of the 100-plus Bedford Chapter will travel to Nashville on March 15 to take part in SOCM Lobby Day "by calling on legislators to vote 'no' on immigration bills that prevent the Hispanic population from learning to speak English, hold jobs, protect families and create a sense of community in Tennessee."
Antonio Perez, a business owner in Shelbyville and a SOCM Board member, was quoted in the press release saying that since the law was enacted, "we're clearly seeing an increase in arrests, and the anti-immigrant laws being considered right now will only make the racial profiling worse."
"Now, people say, 'I'll just leave rather than wait around to get arrested for nothing,'" Perez said in the SOCM statement.
"If people leave, we can't keep our businesses open," Perez stated. "I'm feeling the financial problems already. We need all the support we can get at this point. This is not just about Hispanics. This is about protecting everyone, all communities."
"If discrimination goes on in one area, it's going to hurt everyone. I don't think people understand that families are being torn apart. Kids who were born in Tennessee are losing their parents," he said.
A local attorney also recently told the T-G that Hispanic clients are "terrified" following the passage of Public Chapter 1112 in January.
Boyce said Tuesday that it was his understanding that ICE has been picking up most of those detained in Bedford County due to the new state law.
"If they've got only five seats on the bus when they (ICE) come through and they've got six or seven over there (referring to the jail), they'll pick out the lesser offenders and turn them loose, and take the worst ones ... the ones with more serious charges." Boyce explained.
When asked if there has been a tenfold increase on persons held for federal authorities, Boyce said he had no idea, but said that in previous years, his department had not been required to hold individuals for immigration enforcement agents.
"If they came in on whatever charges, felony or whatever, they would make bond and be released," Boyce said. "They say we can't do that now."
The local members of SOCM will lobby against two bills, one of which is SB0010, that would require all written examinations for a driver license or intermediate driver license to be in English.
Another proposed piece of legislation SOCM opposes is HB1380, called the Lawful Immigration Enforcement Act. It would allow state and local law enforcement to determine the immigration status of an individual during a lawful traffic stop.
The group says the measure is similar to Nashville's 287g program, because it would require law enforcement to detain and turn over illegal immigrants to ICE.
SOCM describes itself as "a member-run organization that encourages civic involvement and collective action so that the people of Tennessee have a greater voice in determining their future."
The organization was formerly known as Save Our Cumberland Mountains and had identified themselves as the Bedford County Chapter of Statewide Organizing for Justice in November 2008 when they helped organize a Community Unity Night that was cosponsored by The Welcoming Tennessee Initiative and El Centro Latino.
The Unity Night event also appears in the documentary "Welcome to Shelbyville," which airs nationwide on PBS on May 25.
"SOCM is working for social, economic, and environmental justice for all," the press release says. "We are committed to the journey of becoming an anti-racist organization. Recognizing our interdependence, SOCM is committed to overcoming social and institutional racism and embracing our diverse cultures."