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Tennessee notes student protections amid anti-sanctuary law

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s education department is advising local school officials that it’s not their role to determine whether students and their families are in the country legally or not under a new state law against sanctuary cities.

The law, one of several taking effect Jan. 1, threatens local governments with the loss of future state economic and community development money if they have immigrant-protecting so-called “sanctuary policies.”

The Republican-led Legislature passed it during a heated election cycle with immigration issues at the forefront. GOP Gov. Bill Haslam 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.

Most significantly, it bans any local policy that restricts compliance with federal immigration detainers for possible deportation of people who were arrested on other charges and then identified as being in the country illegally. That includes barring local policies that require federal officials to obtain a warrant or show probable cause beforehand.

Lisa Sherman Nikolaus, policy director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the law has stirred fear in their communities, including parents terrified of participating in their children’s education. As for sheriffs, who also run jails in the state, Tennessee Sheriffs Association Executive Director Terry Ashe said he doesn’t think it will change how they go about their business.

The Tennessee Department of Education has sent out guidance about the law to schools, many of which have school resource officers employed by local law enforcement agencies. Federal law says “no student can be denied a public education because of his or her citizenship or immigration status, and students and their parents cannot be required to share information about their immigration status,” education department spokeswoman Sara Gast noted.

Gast said the state guidance tells schools that they can’t provide any outside agency, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with information from a student’s school file that would expose that they are in the country illegally without first getting parental permission. The only exception is under a court order, and parents can challenge the order under federal law, Gast said.

Gast said the guidance also advises that school personnel that they have no legal obligation to enforce U.S. immigration laws. Additionally, federal civil rights laws prohibit districts and schools from asking questions that could have a “chilling” effect or prohibit students from attending school, she added. Finally, she said the state law in question requires implementation in a way that’s consistent with federal laws and protective of everyone’s civil rights.

State economic development officials, meanwhile, haven’t crafted any guidance on the new law, but plan to follow it, said department spokesman Scott Harrison.

Nikolaus, of the immigrant rights group, said she doesn’t believe the new law will change things overnight. Her group has been training dozens of community leaders and setting up ways to monitor and report on the law’s implementation.

“We’re more concerned about your rogue police officer, or your rogue school administrator, or something, thinking that the bill gives them certain powers to do certain things, like all of a sudden start asking about immigration status,” Nikolaus said.

Ashe, who heads the sheriffs association, said he wasn’t aware of any guidance among sheriff’s offices about how to enforce the new law, and didn’t think anything would change.

“We’re not out hunting, we’re only doing our business every day,” Ashe said. “We run across an illegal, we’ll go through the process.”

But in Shelby County, which includes Memphis, the sheriff’s office has stopped complying with federal detainers. A sheriff’s office spokesman has declined to comment on how the new law will affect that policy.

In April, the county attorney’s office ruled that U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s 48-hour detainer requests likely violated the U.S. Constitution.

It followed the April arrest of Manuel Duran, a Spanish-language reporter who was covering an immigration rally in Memphis. He still had a pending deportation order from 2007. Charges related to the protest were dropped but he was handed over to immigration officials and detained.

Based on the legal guidance, the sheriff’s office later stopped holding noncitizens suspected of living in the U.S. illegally in jail past their scheduled release dates. But the office still allowed notification to ICE whenever a noncitizen is booked into the jail. It also let ICE make arrests at the facility allowed the immigration agency to be notified of suspects’ release times.

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