SEVIERVILLE — A day after Gov. Bill Haslam announced he would allow legislation banning sanctuary cities in Tennessee to pass into law without his signature, a group took to the streets downtown for what they described as a sign-holding prayer walk.

The Christians Against Blanket Deportation Prayer Walk was organized by Dave Merrill, founder of By His Hand Ministries, before Haslam announced his decision.

The bill prohibits municipalities from adopting “sanctuary policies” that limit law enforcement from working with federal agencies to deport people in the country illegally.

Merrill said the march was planned in advance of the governor’s announcement.

“This is about blanket deportation,” he said. “It just happened to be (today). We were going to do this and we happened to find out … Gov. Haslam was going to let the bill go through.”

The group marched around the Sevier County Courthouse and along the Parkway and Main Street with signs quoting scripture and other sources, such as Emma Lazarus’s poe, New Colossus, which is inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty.

Merrill, who lives in Sevier County, said he hosts an annual multicultural, interdenominational event here each year.

He said he wanted to bring together those groups to show Christian opposition to policies and laws aimed at stricter enforcement of immigration policies and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The issue has taken on new relevance in East Tennessee in recent moths. In April, federal agents detained workers at a Grainger County meat packaging plant and kept dozens in custody under threat of deportation.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke about the country’s immigration policies while addressing a law enforcement conference in Gatlinburg and mentioned that incident.

“I’m not shedding any tears if a business in Tennessee or Massachusetts or anywhere in America can’t hire illegal aliens,” he said. “You don’t get to benefit form being in this country and then look all over the world to recruit your workers. If you can’t find legal workers in the United States, maybe you should increase your wages.

“We have tolerated and winked at the illegality in our immigration system for far too long. It’s time to put ourselves on the path to end illegal immigration once and for all.”

Marchers mentioned a range of different reasons that led them to join the event.

Terry Aparicio is part of the East Tennessee group of the Tennessee Immigrant Refugee and Rights Coalition. She said her faith led her to join the event.

“It was my Christian duty because the Lord Jesus gave us one commandment, and it’s to love one another. There’s so many good people that, even though they entered illegally into this country, they have been here paying taxes with a tax ID number, owned property, and businesses, have not taken things free form the government. They deserve to be granted residence because they are paying taxes as we are and are complying with the law.”

She also supported reinstatement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to allow children who grew up in the United States after their parents brought them here illegally to remain in the United States legally.

President Barack Obama implemented DACA in policy in 2012, and President Donald Trump announced his intention to repeal it last year.

That decision is facing legal challenges; in the meantime most immigrants protected under the DACA act are still under the protection of the act through two-year certifications that allow them to remain here.

Conseulo Aleman, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana La Luz de Jesus in Pigeon Forge, also joined the marchers.

She said she had several concerns that led her to join, including the splitting of families that comes when children are born here — making them U.S. citizens — but their parents are here illegally.

If those parents are deported, it leaves the families and government with a difficult choice: Do children go back to their parents’ home, where they aren’t citizens, or do they remain here and possibly become wards of the state?

“What are they going to do with them?” Aleman asked. “(The children) are Americans, but if they send the parents back, what are they going to do with those kids?”

She said she supports deporting people who commit crimes and are here illegally, but, like the other marchers, she doesn’t support blanket deportations.

“Check their backgrounds, she said. “It’s OK if they deport bad people, but not the good people.”

The group heard from at least one opponent.

A man who didn’t identify himself approached Merrill and told him repeatedly that his reasons for marching were wrong, but also said the government wasn’t trying to send back immigrants who came here as children.

He eventually left, and the group moved on to pray at the steps leading up to the Sevier County Courthouse.

While the group said it hadn’t planned on the timing, the march came amid statewide coverage and discussion of the governor’s decision to let the ban on sanctuary cities become law without his signature.

Haslam said the bill had been amended from earlier versions that provoked concern over its constitutionality.

“This is not a mass deportation bill, and it does not require our law enforcement to serve as immigration enforcement officials or make arrests based on immigration status,” he wrote in a letter to Speaker of the House Beth Harwell that outlined his reasoning.

It permits, but doesn’t require, law enforcement to work with federal agencies, the governor said, and he felt the state’s laws already prohibit local governments from adopting ordinances or policies that could subvert enforcement of federal laws.

“The bill is a solution looking for a problem and has primarily served to stir up fear on both sides of the issue,” the governor wrote. “Sanctuary cities are already prohibited by state law and do not exist in Tennessee.”

Contact Jeff at jfarrell@themountainpress.com, or on Twitter at @jeffmtnpress

This article provided by NewsEdge.