Tennessee Legislature Sends Mixed Message - Bans Voting by Foreign Nationals but Authorizes Professional Licenses
FAIR Take | May 2022
In the same week, Tennessee both pushed back against and caved to the open-borders agenda. It successfully banned voting by anyone who is not an American citizen while at the same time allowing illegal aliens to apply for professional or commercial licenses.
House Bill (HB) 2128 was introduced by Representative John Crawford (R-Bristol/Kingsport) on January 31. The bill provides that only United States citizens can vote in any federal, state, or local election in Tennessee. Additionally, it forbids local governments from creating voting rights for anyone who isn’t a U.S. citizen.
Based on the timing of the bill’s introduction, it appears this legislation was in response to New York City enacting a law on January 9 to give foreign nationals the right to vote in municipal elections. While New York City’s law was immediately challenged in court, Tennessee legislators did not want to wait for a court to decide whether foreign nationals could vote but wanted to act quickly to ensure Tennessee localities would not pass similar legislation.
HB 2128 moved rapidly through the House. It passed the Elections & Campaign Finance Subcommittee on February 16, the Local Government Committee on February 22, and the Calendar & Rules Committee on February 24, all by voice votes. On March 3, the House voted unanimously (92-0) to pass it.
The Senate amended and passed the bill on April 4, along party lines 25-6. On April 11, the House passed the amended bill 83-10, and Governor Bill Lee (R) signed it into law on April 29.
Professional/Occupational Licenses for Foreign Nationals
Governor Lee also recently signed a bill granting commercial and professional licenses to those individuals with work authorization including those here illegally such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In Tennessee, only U.S. citizens and “qualified aliens” are eligible for these licenses.
A “qualified alien” is defined by 8 U.S.C. Sections 1621 and 1641 and it includes some, but not all, aliens who are authorized to work in the United States. For example, it includes only those who have actually been granted asylum but not those who have merely applied for asylum. It also does not include DACA grantees as well as those given Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
Prior state law prescribed a list of specific documents to prove citizenship or status as a qualified alien. It also required the state and local licensing bodies to verify qualified alien status with federal immigration authorities. Additionally, it provided civil and criminal penalties for falsifying applications and documents.
House Bill (HB) 2309 and Senate Bill (SB) 2464, however, define commercial and professional licenses so they are not public benefits. Therefore these licenses are no longer subject to the restrictions, verification and penalty provisions that Tennessee law imposes for other public benefits.
Instead, under these licensing bills anyone authorized to work in the United States, whether a “qualified alien” or not, can receive a professional or commercial license in Tennessee.
The bills were intended to provide licenses to DACA and TPS grantees. Allowing DACA and TPS recipients to obtain professional licenses incentivizes illegal immigration and takes jobs from American citizens and legal immigrants. Moreover, these bills are ill-conceived because DACA and TPS recipients have not been granted lawful status. Rather, federal immigration authorities merely acknowledge their unlawful presence and are opting to temporarily defer their removal. Providing a professional or commercial license to an individual who could be deported at any time needlessly could jeopardize those who are depending on that individual for services.
Finally, Sen. Reeves claims the bills do not “help [illegal aliens] who are crossing our borders and hiding in the shadows across the state of Tennessee.” However, this appears to be incorrect. In addition to the TPS and DACA recipients the bills were intended to benefit, the bills do not limit licenses to only those granted asylum but also allow asylum applicants to receive professional licenses. Under federal law, asylum applicants can be work-authorized 180 days after making an asylum claim.
Many of those surging our southern border each month routinely make asylum claims as soon as they enter the country. The vast majority of asylum claims are ultimately rejected once heard by an immigration judge, but the backlog of claims means it can take many years for them to be decided.
HB 2309 passed the House 56-35 on April 11, the Senate 20-7 on April 14 and it was signed by Gov. Lee on April 26.