Last Thursday, students and supporters of Mercedes Gonzalez showed up at the door to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in a show of support for their fellow grad.
Their message: Don’t deport our future.
Their problem: Davidson County’s 287(g) program, an agreement with the federal government under which the sheriff’s office processes foreign-born arrestees, marking those here illegally for possible deportation.
On May 15, police stopped Gonzalez in her car near the intersection of Harding Place and Nolensville Pike for speeding 8 miles per hour faster than the 40-mph speed limit. When asked for her license, Gonzalez told the officer she didn’t have one. And when he was unable to identify her using her name, date of birth or fingerprints, the officer cuffed Gonzalez and took her to jail for driving without a license.
“That made me feel like a criminal,” Gonzalez said, “which I’m not.” Once in jail, an employee there “told me I would never go back to my family,” Gonzalez recalled. She feared she’d miss graduation from Overton High School six days later.
Gonzalez was allowed to leave jail after three days, at which point the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition took up her cause, highlighting it as an example of how undocumented students are punished through no fault of their own.
TIRRC members helped organize and promote the rally of support for Gonzalez, whose predicament is an example of the national “Change Takes Courage” immigration reform movement urging President Barack Obama to, among other things, stop breaking up families through deportations.
Gonzalez’s story is one of TIRRC’s many pots on a fire that is the blazing national debate of immigration policy.
Recently, TIRRC has had its hand in several demonstrations to highlight what the coalition views as problems and injustices in a flawed national immigration system.
Two weeks ago, TIRRC members found themselves part of a national campaign to encourage Wells Fargo to divest any assets the company might own in the private prison industry, which detractors say is profiteering from illegal immigration by supporting laws such as Arizona’s and therefore driving up the number of inmates.
In May, TIRRC participated in a demonstration at the Green Hills headquarters of Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator.
Last August, TIRRC joined a broader coalition in highlighting violations of the H-2B guest worker program by Vanderbilt Landscaping LLC in Smyrna. The company was later fined $18,000 and banned from participating in the program for three years.
In fact, those on both sides of the immigration policy and illegal immigration debate are disenchanted with the federal government’s response over the past several years. The debate escalated sharply with the passage in 2010 of Arizona’s much criticized law on illegal immigration.
Stephen Fotopulos, who just marked his third year as TIRRC executive director, called Arizona’s law the “game changer” that ramped up the debate and led to a “dangerous and costly experiment” of states making their own immigration policies.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law last April, broadening local law enforcement’s ability to identify those suspected of being in the country illegally and detaining them for possible deportation later.
TIRRC spent a lot of time and energy the past six months, Fotopulos said, holding the line in the General Assembly against what he called a “small handful of lawmakers” who want to adopt similar bills to Arizona’s law and create a “mishmash” of immigration laws. TIRRC succeeded in at least stalling the “Arizona copycat bill,” as Fotopulos called it, in the legislature until next year.
But success and failure are defined by which side of the bread gets buttered.
Rep. Joe Carr’s most recent success in anti-illegal immigration came this past state legislative session with the passage of an amended bill requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check the citizenship of new hires through a federal program.
To Carr, R-Lascassas, the difference between organizations such as TIRRC and those who believe as he does is the difference between the rights of legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, as well as the obligations of the government to enforce the law. “They [TIRRC] do not make a distinction,” he said.
If it’s a broken immigration policy being discussed, Carr agrees the process of someone receiving citizenship legally is lengthy and is tripped up by “entirely too much red tape.”
“But that has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the fundamental problem that we have with illegal immigration in this state and in this country.”
Carr feels, however, that some hide behind the phrase “immigration reform,” using it as a code word for amnesty. “I’m absolutely opposed to amnesty in any form. What I am for, though, is enforcement.”
First, he said, there must be real enforcement at the border, but then states should be allowed to “rectify the state problem that the federal government has put on top of us with a state solution individualized for each state.”
Gonzalez prefers not to discuss how she arrived in the United States from Mexico around the time she was in middle school. As she remains an undocumented alien, she still faces deportation, though a date for the proceedings has yet to be set.
But if Gonzalez is one of TIRRC’s poster children for immigration policy injustice, Carr has his own.
On May 3, according to the Gallatin Police Department, officers arrested Victor Quroz-Salate after a 9-year-old girl said she awoke to find the man allegedly sexually assaulting her.
Gallatin police arrested Quroz-Salate on an aggravated sexual battery charge, and discovered he had previously been deported in August 2009 by Immigration Customs Enforcement officials. He was apparently back in the U.S. illegally when Gallatin authorities arrested him.
In a press release regarding the arrest, Gallatin police reported that Quroz-Salate likes Tennessee and the U.S. because “people get things for free here.”
“And now we’ve got a 9-year-old little girl who suffered as a result of it,” Carr said. “That’s the problem.”
But for Gonzalez, her possible deportation problem is out of her control. Though she graduated from Overton the Saturday following her arrest, her plans to go on to college and eventually become a doctor or nurse are now in jeopardy.
“Basically, I know Obama has the power to stop the deportation not just for me but for the people that’s going through the same situation,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure that I can do good things — for Nashville and Tennessee.”