The morning of Sunday, March 21, was sunny and spotless in Washington, D.C. As Congress rolled up its sleeves for the last round of the ideological brawl over heath care reform, the tea party protesters were out in full force.
By mid-morning, the green lawns ringing Capitol Hill were trampled by the stomping feet of hundreds of anti-reform activists. Brandishing hand-painted signs that spelled out characteristic ill will, the assembled shook their fists and broke into spirited chants while onlookers and nervous Capitol Hill police officers watched from a distance.
But despite the media’s reluctance to take the cameras off the health care naysayers, they were far from the biggest party in town that day. In fact, around noon, another sound began piping in from the east — a staccato, singsong three-word chant, vaguely familiar.
Si, se puede! Si, se puede! Si, se puede!
As the sound grew to a stadium roar, thousands of marchers poured down the sidewalks of Constitutional Avenue and onto the National Mall. Waving American and Mexican flags, banging hand drums and maracas, the streaming masses assembled on the lawn before a simple stage and two large screens for an event that organizers had dubbed “March for America.”
Pulling participants from across the country, the rally was billed as a show of support for comprehensive immigration reform, a not-so-subtle nod toward President Obama’s campaign promise to make the item a key piece of his agenda (the movement’s co-opted rallying cry is Spanish for Obama’s famous slogan, “Yes, we can”). Rather than push a specific bill, event organizers hoped to kick-start a conversation on how to best fix an immigration system that leaves an estimated 16 million undocumented aliens stateside in a legal and cultural limbo.
It is no accident that event organizers planned the D.C. march to happen on the heels of the health care debate. As the rethink of the medical insurance system took center stage during the first year of the Obama administration, immigration activists worried whether the other comprehensive movement for reform would be lost in the mix.
By the time the rally began, more than 200,000 people were gathered — the single largest congregation of people in D.C. since the Obama inauguration and nearly twice the attendance that organizers expected.
Among the crowd was a sizable contingent of Middle Tennesseans. The night before the rally, a 10-bus caravan pulled out of Nashville and barreled through Appalachia and up into the Beltway, arriving at the Capitol a few hours after dawn. By the time the event ended late Sunday afternoon, the same group again boarded the buses for a repeat of the grueling, close-quarters 667-mile overnight ride.
It’s not surprising that Middle Tennessee fielded a team of D.C. marchers. With a growing immigrant population estimated at around 11.1 percent, or 69,260, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the region’s ballooning number of foreign-born — legal and not — has occasioned a strong pushback from conservative corners. The scope and style of this reaction has varied, but in recent years it’s manifested itself most concretely in a series of local and state legislative proposals aimed at new arrivals.
“These new destination states like Tennessee that are seeing immigration again as a new thing in the last 20 years are experiencing that backlash,” Stephen Fotopulos, the executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told The City Paper on the first leg of the bus ride to D.C. “This attitude is, ‘Why is the face of my community changing? I’ve got to do something. English-only sounds pretty good.’ ”
As a result, Middle Tennessee’s immigrant population has been defined publicly less on its own terms than by a small opposition’s attempts to stymie it. But that may have begun to change a few weeks ago. In a surprising show of organizational muscle, Middle Tennessee sent more than 400 people to the Capitol. In addition to the Middle Tennessee contingent, TIRRC sent an additional 100 marchers from Memphis and Knoxville to the event. The participants — mostly Hispanic with a smattering of Caucasians, Kurds and African-Americans — represented a cross-section of ages and economic situations, from the first generation English-speaking sons and daughters of immigrants to recent arrivals and the undocumented.
Many came at their own risk, the same set who tend to avoid public demonstrations for fear of the government.
But it’s the decision to finally take a public stand in the political arena that represents a step forward for the region’s immigrant population as a whole, a sign this widening slice of the demographic is no longer content to remain a cloistered part of the local political and social fabric.
The local issue(s)
Jaime Gonzalez is the American-born son of Mexican immigrants. The affable Middle Tennessee State University senior helped organize three busloads of marchers from his hometown of Shelbyville, Tenn., and was a leader on the trip, trying to ease the concerns of everyone from the rowdy high schoolers along for the ride to the silent older couples who nervously kept to themselves throughout the trek.
The main concern was a potential run-in with law or immigration enforcement. The majority of the Hispanic riders were undocumented illegal residents, Gonzalez said, and if one of the buses was pulled over, riders feared an overzealous officer might go sifting through IDs.
“There was a lot of misconceptions about what was going to happen on the trip,” Gonzalez said. “There were some people who thought that immigration was waiting for the buses to pull them over and deport everybody. Also, there was a lot of fear that there would be counter-protesters here who might get violent.”
This blend of fear and suspicion of the government and law enforcement is common among both the undocumented and those with papers. Tensions have risen in recent years thanks to a number of local dustups over immigration.
Recently, Middle Tennessee has witnessed two prime time bouts over immigration. The first was Metro Councilman Eric Crafton’s January 2009 push for a law dictating that all government business be conducted in English. The so-called English-only initiative was met with near-unanimous opposition from the city’s political and business circles, and it was later discovered that the majority of the referendum’s funding came from the Virginia anti-immigration group ProEnglish. Voters shot the measure down.
But public opinion over the second major immigration debate, the Davidson County Sheriff Department’s ongoing 287(g) program, has been less than unanimous. With its third anniversary this month, the program — which subjects arrested individuals to an immigration check — sparked concerns among opponents that it would increase racial profiling and worsen distrust between law enforcement and members of the immigrant community.
However, since the program’s implementation, the department said statistics don’t support those concerns.
“By and large the number of foreign-born individuals arrested since we started 287(g) has decreased, so there’s nothing in our statistics that would support that there is racial profiling going on within the police department,” said spokeswoman Karla Weikal. She added that since its inception, the program has processed more than 7,000 individuals for removal proceedings. In that time, the number of foreign-born arrested has actually dropped from 10 percent in June 2007 to 7.6 percent in February 2010.
Activists maintain the program cultivates distrust and is a symptom of the broken immigration system.
“There is fear in the immigrant community of law enforcement because of programs like 287(g) that criminalize them for driving or fishing without a license,” argued Elias Feghali, TIRRC’s communications coordinator. “When you have someone in a position of being split up from their family and losing their livelihood over something so basic, it makes them likely to turn away from law enforcement in times of need.”
Now, a new crop of state legislation also threatens to influence future discourse.
One proposal, sponsored by Franklin Republican Sen. Jack Johnson, would give private businesses the legal legroom to require only English be spoken in the workplace; another, pushed by Cleveland Republican Rep. Eric Watson, seeks to restrict the state’s driving test to English. A third bill, proposed by Republicans Sen. Mike Faulk of Kingsport and Rep. Eric Swafford of Pikeville, would require public schools to “collect data on students who cannot prove lawful residence” and issue an annual report on “the adverse impact” of such students in the school.
According to immigration activists, both the previous and current proposals only threaten to widen the divide between natives and new arrivals.
“This legislation really sends the message that our state is uncomfortable with people from other countries and new Americans, and that our elected officials are focusing their energy on ways to divide us as a community and create barriers for integration,” Feghali explained. “They want to use state resources and state time on initiatives that would further separate immigrants from the larger population.”
Animosity and bad facts
On the afternoon of the D.C. rally, the onstage program unfolded in a somewhat random fashion, less like an organized event than a free-style tent revival. With a mix of evangelical fervor and political talking points, more than 50 speakers jumped on stage to address the crowd, most representing immigrant advocacy centers, local unions or religious groups. Some speakers addressed the crowd in English, others in Spanish, many starting sentences in one language before jumping to the other.
The congregated mass on the lawn was its own performance, a carnival of high spirits and bizarre juxtapositions. With no apparent provocation, sections of the crowd burst into chants, often two or more sayings vying for volume at once. The flags of different nations and signs were hoisted into the air beside ornate icons of the Virgin Mary. A mariachi band played on a patch of grass only 50 yards away from a group of traditional Korean string players. A band of mimes walked the lawn handing out balloons.
The attitude throughout was ebullient, a positive counterpoint to the anger evident up the hill. For most of the day, health care reform opponents kept their distance from the marchers, with a few notable exceptions.
One health care protester, a small, bookish woman likely in her 40s, stood at the corner of the Mall near Capitol Hill, a sign reading “Sm Government = More Freedom” clutched in her hands. As the Tennessee marchers walked past, the woman began to shout.
“Hospitals are closing — that’s thanks to you,” she spat. “Cities are bankrupt thanks to you. California is bankrupt thanks to you. You don’t even pay taxes. Who paid for your trip here?”
Many of the marchers laughed off the verbal strafing and continued down to the Mall. But for some, the outburst was indicative of the ill will immigrants encounter from locals — animosity grounded in bad facts.
“What people do need is the right information,” said Juan, a Mexico native living in Nashville, one of the many undocumented Tennesseans who made the trek. Short and linebacker-wide, the college graduate has resided illegally in the United States since he walked over the border crossing in Ciudad Juarez in 2001 to look for work. Today, he works both full- and part-time jobs in addition to running his own sales and marketing business.
Juan (who asked The City Paper not to reveal his real name) points out that when it comes to taxes, the federal government does not distinguish between legal and undocumented residents; the IRS simply issues Individual Taxpayer Identification numbers to residents without Social Security numbers and still collects out of their listed earnings.
“Many of us just try to do the best we can,” he said in choppy English. “Do our taxes, try to go straight, don’t get in trouble, and pay our bills.”
Despite the legislative and cultural reactions to the growing diversity of the region, Fotopulos said Middle Tennessee is actually a step or two ahead of other regions struggling with such an identity crisis; Nashville witnesses its fair share of knee-jerk xenophobia, but it also has developed a recent record of defending against it.
“We’re not unique in seeing it, but we’re fairly unique in being able to mount a considerable defense and do the organizing and public education to hold them back and beat them,” he said.
English-only ordinances pass in other states; local mosques are desecrated across the country without subsequent community outrage; 287(g) programs are passed in other districts without public scrutiny and debate. But Nashville has met such issues head on, in the process cultivating a growing sense of tolerance that’s partly responsible for the decision among many of the D.C. marchers to take such a public stand on the issue most closely affecting their lives. Local organizers hope to turn immigration reform from a minority issue into one all Tennesseans see as crucial.
“It’s important for people to know that this is not just an issue in Illinois or New York or California,” Fotopulos said. “This is our immigration system, and it’s failing all Americans, whether you’re an immigrant or not.”