Tennessee immigrant groups, union organizers push back on preemptive laws

A 2018 photo from a TIRRC demonstration. (Photo: Jon Dragonette/TIRRC Facebook)
A 2018 photo from a TIRRC demonstration. (Photo: Jon Dragonette/TIRRC Facebook)

Immigrant rights advocates and community organizers are urging legislators to restore critical decision making to local governments, adding that if COVID-19 has proven anything, it’s that local officials know what’s best for their residents. 

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) and Stand Up Nashville (SUN), a coalition of community leaders and union organizers, joined together to push back against state laws that prevented local officials from rapidly tackling issues that arose at the beginning of the pandemic. The groups are seeking revocation of longstanding state laws that restricted local officials from addressing the affordable housing crisis, broadband accessibility, local hire and paid sick leave. 

Stand Up Nashville.
Stand Up Nashville.

Their state-wide coalition partner group, We Decide TN, have sponsored several bills to repeal preemptive laws. Currently moving through the Senate is SB 315, which removes the statewide prohibition on local governments enacting inclusionary zoning regulations, and SB1436, which removes prohibition on the state or any local government from requiring a business to employ individuals who reside within the area or who are within a specific income range. A bill required paid sick leave failed in the Senate, but organizers plan to pursue it in 2022.  

Organizers added that these preemptive measures had always been a problem but contributed to worsening the effects of the pandemic. 

“One of the things we’ve definitely learned over the past year is that local governments need to be able to target the respective needs that are coming up in their own localities,” said Judith Clerjeune, TIRRC’s campaigns and advocacy director.

The pandemic left many Tennesseans struggling to prepare themselves for job loss, keeping their homes and taking sick days to prevent further spread of the virus. Local public officials also grappled with finding solutions and either dipped significantly into city budgets or spent time waiting on stalled federal aid to come during the Trump administration. 

But as much as no one could have prepared for the crisis, TIRRC and SUN advocates pointed to preemptive laws that contributed significantly to longstanding issues that worsened COVID-19 conditions for residents or prevented local policymakers from addressing them. 

Throughout the state, schools turned to virtual learning to continue children’s education, but organizers  blamed existing laws that forced broadband providers to stay in their district due to a state statute  limiting the powers of town-owned internet service providers to expand their networks to nearby underserved communities. 

Households in rural and suburban areas were left without access to their online studies, and disconnected students were left behind in their education. In areas such as Chester County, half of all residents did not have access to broadband or any internet provider.  According to the Washington Post,  a lack of internet and technology to access it  disproportionately affected Black, Latino and Native American households — with nearly one-third of students lacking high-speed internet at home. 

Along with broadband accessibility, lack of affordable housing and paid sick leave created dangerous situations for residents during the pandemic. 

In 2018, the Tennessee legislature passed a law preventing cities from having inclusionary laws that would have set aside districts for affordable housing or preserved affordable housing. Metro Nashville offers incentives for developers to build affordable units, but Nashville is projected to have a shortage of affordable units by 2025, according to the Tennessean.

The housing crisis had already existed before the pandemic began, and residents facing eviction during the pandemic had few options. The CDC issued an eviction moratorium to prevent mass evictions that would have forced families to move into crowded housing situations, but SUN advocates said gentrification and a lack of affordable housing made larger families move into crowding units. Latino, Native American, and Asian individuals, who increasingly live in multigenerational households, disproportionately live in overcrowded rental units that are not large enough or are not constructed for larger households, according to the Center for American Progress.

These crowded housing situations greatly increased the spread of the virus. Early reports from the Centers for Disease Control showed that the virus was commonly spread through households. 

  One of the things we've definitely learned over the past year is that local governments need to be able to target the respective needs that are coming up in their own localities.   – Judith Clerjeune, director of campaigns and advocacy for TIRRC

Once people became sick, many were unable to take time off work due to finances. Many essential workers, primarily Hispanic workers, couldn’t afford to stop working if it meant losing wages. A state law currently prohibits cities from requiring companies to offer paid sick leave.

 “These all hit hard. We were already in crisis before COVID-19 happened. These specific issues led to a lot of tension because of the COVID-19 crisis,” said Hannah Kuhn, SUN spokesperson. 

“Restrictive laws are not a new issue, but it’s become pervasive over the past few years,” she added.

Immigrants and new Americans are equally affected by these issues, said Clerjeune, but  immigrants have to deal with a whole new set of preemptive laws targeting them, and many of these preemptive laws may have contributed to high COVID-19 rates in immigrant communities. 

The state law HB2315 prevented local municipalities from adopting sanctuary policies that would have prevented businesses from asking about immigration status. TIRRC officials found themselves hurrying to publish information about the virus to assure immigrants that they were allowed to get tested and seek medical care. 

Because immigrant communities had so many questions about access and worried about people asking for their status or paperwork, many delayed getting medical attention after contracting COVID and eventually ended up in emergency care, said Clerjeune. 

Under federal law, undocumented immigrants are prohibited from receiving most public benefits. However, they are allowed to receive emergency services, health care and other programs in emergency situations having to do with life and death. 

The pandemic left immigrants with few resources while in the middle of disaster, despite the fact that immigrants made up a big chunk of the U.S. essential workforce. Many DACA recipients worked in healthcare and the vast majority of America’s food source comes from the hands of undocumented immigrants

Early in 2020, COVID-19 clusters were reported in three meat and poultry-processing plants in Tennessee, according to the CDC. TIRRC joined a nationwide effort to highlight the rising number of infected workers in meatpacking plants. Immigrant workers spoke of being forced to keep working despite stay-at-home directives, and others were forced to continue working after contracting COVID-19. 

Nashville’s Metro Council was able to allocate CARES Act funds to immigrants regardless of a social security number, and for many, this was the only financial help they were able to receive for the entire year that the pandemic ran.

“If they’re unable to do anything for folks that have citizenship, their hands are even more tied when it comes to immigrant residents,” said Clerjeune. 

More could have been done to prevent the virus’ rampage in immigrant communities, said Clerjeune, since local governments are being limited by the state on what services they can legally provide to immigrants.  Access to rent relief, lost wages and healthcare may have been what led to immigrants shouldering a large percentage of COVID cases. Last summer, one in every three Tennessee residents who has tested positive for COVID-19 was Hispanic — 35 percent of the state’s entire count of positive individuals, according to the Lookout.

People were nearly left defenseless in an unpredictable economic disaster, “It is our moral duty as a country to take care of people, to make sure they have what they need, including a path to citizenship,” said Clerjeune.

In preparation for a post-COVID world, SUN and TIRRC officials plan to continue holding rallies, public meetings and reaching out to legislators to address their concerns.