The 2012 legislative session has finally come to an end. What an exciting year it has been for us. Just as we launched the American Center for Outreach (ACO), the legislative session went into full throttle. Several dozen bills were introduced immediately that would have affected our community. However, as an outcome of last year’s mobilization and ACO’s continued lobbying presences, lawmakers reconsidered many costly and divisive legislation that had no benefit for Tennesseans.
Below you will find descriptions of the major legislative successes and challenges this year. Although there were difficulties, together we were successful in defeating many legislation, and also in amending any bill that did pass to minimize its negative impact. None of this would have been possible without the tireless work of community leaders, strong allies, and everyone who took the time to get involved. For a list of all the bills this year please click here.
As the 2012 election season nears and the next legislative session fast approaches, we ask that you please help continue the work of ACO with your financial support. Please click here to find out how you can help build our movement.
Celebrating Our Achievements
In January, ACO was officially launched to present the Muslim voice at the political level. We wanted to ensure that we as a community never be taken off guard again. For far too long, we as the Muslim community have not been an active part of the legislative process however, this year the Muslim community boldly entered the playing field unwilling to be victimized again. The Muslim voice is now an integral part in ensuring that religious freedom for all Tennesseans is preserved. Community members made it clear that they were paying attention to the legislative process, informed on the issues, and willing to hold their representatives accountable. This year state lawmakers continued to come face-to-face with the very people they were attempting to marginalize last year. With these consistent interactions we as a community have sustained and created new relationships between lawmakers and our local community.
Full Face Photo ID Bill
We began the legislative session by fending off (HB2547 by Hill/ SB2613 by Tracy) bill that would make all Tennessee photo ids require that the individual’s full-face show. As we continue to fight for religious freedom in our state, we met with the sponsors of the bill and Department of Safety representatives to raise our concerns. After assurance from the Department of Safety, who also went on public record stating that the new law would not take away their current religious exemption, we as ACO decided to be neutral on the bill. The Department of Safety stated that the new policy does not change what they are currently doing and anyone seeking not to show their full face on a photo id could do so if it was for a religious purpose. If any individual is denied the religious exemption for photo ids we ask that you contact us directly for assistance.
Preventing Diversity in Our Charter Schools Bill
SB3345 by Ketron/HB3540 by Matheny became law without the Governor’s signature on May 2, 2012. The American Center for Outreach in association with the American Muslim Advisory Council and Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition made a formal request to Governor Haslam urging him to veto the bill because of concerns around it’s constitutionality and the possibility of federal funding being jeopardized. Because of our strong collective opposition the Governor in a formal statement, also raised the same concerns and let the bill become law without his signature. Most importantly the Governor has requested for an Attorney General’s opinion to check the constitutionality of the new law.
As you may already know the legislation was drafted by the Tennessee Eagle Forum, as a continuation of their controversial, anti-Muslim campaign from last year that we courageously fought off. As originally introduced, SB3345 would prevent any noncitizen from being involved in a charter school; in its current form, the bill establishes arbitrary restrictions on the nationality and ethnicity of teachers, regardless of their qualifications or suitability for the subject matter. The chartering authority would also be able to deny or revoke a charter if a school employed more than 3.5% workers on a non-immigrant visa. Currently in our state the average charter school employs less than 25 people. This means the average charter school would not be able to hire a single foreign worker on a H-1B or J- visas.
House and Senate sponsors of SB3345/HB3540 referred to the legislation as a “jobs bill,” presumably because it attempts to exclude foreign workers in favor of US-born or immigrant workers. However, out of literally hundreds of worker visa categories, the bill only limits two— H-1Bs and J-1s—both of which already include protections for US workers as part of the federal approval process.
H-1B visas are exclusively for highly skilled workers with rare subject matter expertise, and prospective employers must demonstrate, with US Department of Labor certification, that employment of the H-1B worker will not adversely impact the employment conditions of any US workers. The number of available H-1B visas each year is also extremely low, meaning a charter school would be in an enviable position if it were authorized to sponsor such an international expert.
J-1 visas are considered an “Exchange Visitor Program,” intended for cultural exchanges of only short duration. Schools in Tennessee that might choose to pursue staff on a J-1 visa would face an additional hurdle as a result of this legislation. According to federal guidance, “program sponsors, with exception of Federal Agencies, must have a minimum of five exchange visitor participants on an annual basis in order to remain eligible for designation.” Practically speaking, the 3.5% cap included in the legislation would become an absolute bar for all but the very largest of charter schools, those with more than 142 total employees.
The law does make exemptions for the hiring of foreign language teachers but we feel that this bill still creates new restrictions for charter schools. ACO will continue to monitor how this law is implemented. We will work with all the necessary entities including the community, to ensure that any abuses that may occur are addressed with the assistance of appropriate authorities.
Special Thanks to Our Allies
ACO could not have taken on our first official legislative session without the support and guidance from our amazing allies in the business, civil rights, and faith communities. On behalf of the American Center for Outreach, I would like to thank everyone for their incredible work and support this year. With sustained, positive contact by community leaders and their allies, there is a growing awareness among legislators that unwelcoming bills are bad for our communities, our consciences, and our state’s economic well being. Faith leaders have been indispensable in making the moral argument to oppose legislation that would further marginalize and exploit members of our community. Muslim leaders and their allies have been more visible than ever, explaining to legislators the unintended consequences of these bills on our collective future. Thank you to everyone who responded to action alerts, contacted legislators, participated in Clergy Day on the Hill, and numerous mini-advocacy days.
Though the legislative session has come to an end, this is only the beginning of our work. The election season is here! Elected officials are beginning to campaign heavily in their respective districts. We may not know who will win each race but one thing is for certain, the anti-Muslim rhetoric is going to intensive and we as a community must be ready to respond. The Muslim community needs to be visible and at the forefront of all local politics. We must start in our own communities to bring about positive systematic change that is inclusive, welcoming and protects our state’s reputation.
As a first effort to defeat misguided promises that will be made during election season, we must be engaged in this year’s elections. As a community, we have to encourage ourselves to avoid sitting on the sidelines, and instead take ownership of the Get Out the Vote process. Let’s promote voter registration, lead phone banking & canvassing efforts and hit the polls on Election Day! Together we can defeat any bill on our way to building a stronger, more inclusive state for all Tennesseans. Please on the look out for ways you can stay connected and involved in our GOTV efforts this season.
Once again, please consider making a financial contribution that enables us to continue making Tennessee a strong, inclusive, and welcoming state.