"If we're going to have (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) coming in and creating orphans in our community, then somebody should have to bear the responsibility for that," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.
Yarbro proposed the legislation, which has three main parts:
"Directly or indirectly" employing 50 or more undocumented immigrants would be a considered a Class E felony if the employer has "reason to know" their workers lack authorization to work in the country.
If ICE agents were to detain or deport an employer's workers, the appropriate district attorney would launch an investigation into whether any health, safety, tax, employment and wage theft laws were violated in the workplace.
Employers convicted of knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants could be required to pay restitution to "the state, any local government, or any United States citizen" to cover costs "including lost wages and costs for the care and education of the dependents" of workers who are detained or deported.
The legislation comes in the form of an amendment to a controversial bill that would explicitly ban sanctuary cities in Tennessee and require local law enforcement to detain certain immigrants. Supporters of the bill say it's necessary to ensure police don't refuse ICE detainer requests.
Yarbro said he believes the initial bill "imposes an unfunded mandate on cities and places them at risk of violating the Constitution so Republicans can say they're being tough on immigration."
"But if we’re actually going to be tough on immigration," he added, "we should target employers that are exploiting immigrant workers instead of cities that are just trying to ensure public safety."
Yarbro said he was inspired to draft the amendment after he "saw what happened in Grainger County," where federal authorities last week raided a beleaguered cattle slaughterhouse, Southeastern Provision, amid accusations the owners had been paying undocumented workers in cash to duck millions of dollars in payroll taxes.
An undocumented immigrant who served as a confidential informant for authorities reported workers at Southeastern Provision were forced to work overtime without pay and were exposed to hazardous chemicals without protective gear, according to court records.
ICE agents who raided the slaughterhouse detained a total of 97 people, leading some to describe it as the largest such operation in a decade. Supporters have since rallied around the workers, with advocates arguing the case underscores the need for immigration reform.
As of Tuesday evening, the owners of the plant, James and Pamela Brantley, had not been charged in the raid. James Brantley has turned down the chance to talk about it.
The raid left children — many of them U.S. citizens — as "effective orphans because their parents were detained and in the process of being deported," Yarbro said.
"But the employer and people running the company all slept soundly at home that night."
The amendment to Senate Bill No. 2332 was slated to be discussed Wednesday, but the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, referred it to the Calendar Committee. The House version of the bill is sponsored by Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin.