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Tenn. immigration backers say Ariz. law is 'too radical'

6:55 AM, Jul 30, 2010   |    comments
State Sen. Bill Ketron says immigration system is broken. State Sen. Bill Ketron says immigration system is broken./The Tennessean
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By Chris Echegaray, The Tennessean 

While Tennessee's lawmakers work to make state immigration policy as tough as Arizona's, Tennessee businesses and professional groups are lobbying to make life easier for immigrants.

The Nashville Music Association union, Tyson Foods and the National Pork Producers Council, with a local office in Rutherford County, all lobby for immigration reform that would raise the cap on worker visas. They also want to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"This is my opinion, I understand illegal immigration may be out of control in Arizona, but their law was over the top," said Craig Krampf, secretary and treasurer of the Nashville Music Association. "Too radical. Mistakes were made on all sides with immigration, and we need some reform."

The Arizona law would have required non-citizens to carry identification papers at all times and required police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. But a federal judge blocked most of its provisions on Wednesday, hours before they were to take effect. The state has appealed and the case may end up in the Supreme Court.

Regardless of the legal outcome and some local businesses' stance, Tennessee legislators still plan to introduce a version of Arizona's law next legislative session.

The state enacted a law this year requiring jailers to check the immigration status of all foreign-born inmates. It goes into effect on Jan. 1.

In 2007, Tennessee passed the Illegal Alien Employment Act, which gave all government officials the authority to report businesses suspected of knowingly employing illegal immigrants. If such violations are proved, the businesses lose their licenses to operate. None have, so far.

Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who sponsored the Illegal Alien Employment Act, said states are doing what the federal government should be - fixing a broken immigration system. He said the laws that have passed, and the ones to come next year, won't affect companies operating in Tennessee.

Corporations lobby

Private businesses are required to report federal lobbying and give a general description of the issue, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics. They don't have to list the amount spent.

Meanwhile, nonprofits such as the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Forum spent $580,000 and $226,000 respectively in 2009, lobbying the federal government to get amnesty for illegal immigrants already here. More than 240 businesses, organizations and professional groups have lobbied the federal government this year on both sides of the immigration reform debate, according to a center report released this month.

Leading the pack in lobbying for immigration reform are Microsoft, Oracle, American Meat Institute and Walmart, said the center's spokesman, Dave Levinthal, in Washington.

"There is an incentive for them to invest time and money when there could be major sweeping changes in immigration law," Levinthal said. "Ultimately, corporations rely on immigrant labor. Bottom line. They have to make sure whatever new policies are being established on the federal level are at best advantageous, at worst not so onerous." 

The American Federation of Musicians, along with the local union, lobbies to help musicians from outside the U.S. with visa problems. There's a robust international country music scene, Krampf said.

Krampf, a songwriter, producer and drummer, said he has dealt with at least 15 requests from artists about visa extensions and remaining in America.

Krampf said most of those artists making requests to stay in Nashville are Canadian. His office hasn't dealt with any requests from artists from Mexico, a nation typically at the center of the immigration debate.

"Canada has a strong connection here and they want to come to Nashville," Krampf said. "We've written letters on their behalf, a letter about their value to the Nashville community."

Corrections Corporation of America also has lobbied under the divisive topic. The Nashville-based company seeks more funding for their contract partners, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement and state prison and jails.

"We do not lobby on any sentencing or enforcement (laws) or any reform," said Steve Owen, CCA's director of public affairs. "It's a standing policy, and it's a directive we give to our lobbyists."

Guest workers wanted

Arkansas-based Tyson Foods has lobbied in favor of getting more guest workers for its plants. Its Shelbyville, Tenn., plant employs Hispanics, Egyptians and Somalis.

"Tyson Foods has been active in supporting efforts for comprehensive immigration reform," the company said in a statement. "Our company is a member of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (and) also supports the work of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in this matter.

"We support legislation that ensures better control over our borders to prevent illegal immigration and provides a process for undocumented workers already in the U.S. to qualify for legal status." 

The National Pork Producers Council, which represents the Tennessee Pork Producers Association, wants the federal government to develop a plan for legalization for undocumented workers.

"We support securing our borders and developing a system for a path to citizenship," spokesman Dave Warner said. "No way are we going to ship 12 million (estimated illegal immigrants) out."

The local group, Tennessee Pork Producers Association in Rutherford County, declined to comment.

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama called for the federal government to pass immigration reform quickly, but there is no legislation pending and no timetable for it.

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