Tennessee’s GOP governor candidates talk tough on immigration

Diane Black, Randy Boyd, Beth Harwell and Bill Lee.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican front-runners for Tennessee governor are parroting President Donald Trump’s call to “build the wall” and are depicting one another as sympathizers of people in the country illegally, turning the race into a fight over who’s toughest on immigration.

In a TV ad, U.S. Rep. Diane Black goes fishing and calls the federal government’s immigration approach a “catch and release” system that lets lawbreakers free.

Former state economic development chief Randy Boyd declares “illegal is illegal” in his TV spot.

With those hard stances, anything perceived as short of hardline on immigration has been fair game for attacks.

For Black, it’s a 2001 vote on immigrant driver’s licenses and a recent vote on the omnibus budget bill that included border security money.

For Boyd, it’s a donation to an immigrant group’s entrepreneurial kitchen program and a position on an education board that advocated some benefits to immigrants here illegally.

Like Black and Boyd, the other two leading Republicans, businessman Bill Lee and state House Speaker Beth Harwell, support recently passed legislation against sanctuary cities that mandates local police comply with federal immigration detainers.

They all oppose giving in-state public higher education tuition to students whose parents brought or kept them in the country illegally.

Each candidate would be a change of pace from Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, who supported the in-state tuition bill twice, posing for photos with immigrant students. He let the sanctuary cities bill become law without signing it, calling it “a solution looking for a problem.”

The term-limited, popular governor said he hopes the conversation in the race will change.

“Ninety-nine percent of the issues that come up around immigration are controlled by the federal government. That was a little bit of the point with the sanctuary cities bill,” Haslam said. “I hope the conversation goes to things that the governor’s job is really about.”

The Democratic candidates, ex-Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, oppose the sanctuary city bill and support in-state tuition.

Tennessee Jobs Now PAC is targeting Black’s voting record. Boyd campaign donor and businessman Joe Hollingsworth Jr. has largely fueled the group with $400,000. Boyd’s campaign says it has nothing to do with the PAC’s ads.

The ad points to a 2001 bill that Black voted for to allow people without Social Security numbers to have driver’s licenses, including those in the country illegally. Former GOP Gov. Don Sundquist signed the bill.

Black’s campaign said the legislation was supported by law enforcement and ensured drivers, regardless of immigration status, knew the rules of road, could read signs and pass driving tests.

The campaign admitted the law had unintended consequences, with immigrants coming in nationwide for licenses. She co-sponsored a failed 2002 repeal attempt, and voted for a bill in 2004 that instead offered those without Social Security numbers a certificate for driving for up to one year.

Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen signed the bill, which only two lawmakers opposed. His administration suspended the program in 2006.

Harwell also voted for the 2001 and 2004 bills.

The PAC ad says Black voted against funding Trump’s border wall by opposing the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, which included $1.6 billion for the first steps of Trump’s U.S.-Mexico wall. Trump signed it after considering a veto in part because it was well short of the $25 billion he has sought in wall money. In a tweet in March, Trump said much can be done with the $1.6 billion, adding that it’s “just a down payment.”

After the vote, Black tweeted that the bill increased spending and let Senate Democrats pick their priorities. She has since proposed legislation that would crowd-fund to help pay for the wall.

Black’s campaign has targeted Boyd for a $250,000 donation in 2016 to Conexion Americas solely to help expand its commercial kitchen so more culinary entrepreneurs could use it. Conexion Americas lobbied for the in-state tuition bill and against the sanctuary legislation.

Black’s team has also blasted Boyd for sitting on the College Promise Campaign board, a national initiative headed by former Vice President Joe Biden’s wife Jill to advocate for two years of free community college. Then-President Barack Obama announced the board in September 2015. It has liberal and conservative members.

Boyd, while Haslam’s economic development chief, helped establish Tennessee’s landmark free community college program.

The College Promise Campaign’s website says, “Some programs are explicitly limited to U.S. citizens, while others include residents of the locality or state, including undocumented students.”

It’s yet to be seen whether Trump-era fervor over illegal immigration will drive Tennessee Republican voters’ decision in the August primary.

A Vanderbilt University poll showed that among Republicans, only 10 percent considered immigration their first priority for state government, and 9 percent called it their second priority.

The poll also found half of Republicans favor the in-state tuition idea.