Hard-Line Immigration Laws Take a Back Seat in Tennessee

Photo by Meredith Farmer.

When it comes to immigration in Tennessee, state legislators are starting to realize that not only do they have bigger fish to fry, immigration is a fish that’s better left swimming in federal waters.  The Tennessean reports that, though Republicans had hoped to pass stringent immigration legislation when they took power of the Tennessee State Congress this past fall, the Tennessee GOP is starting to find that their immigration platform is not only economically foolish, it also doesn’t reflect the priorities or attitudes of their constituents.

Republican Rep. Tony Shipley, the man who was once concerned about “German workers who might try to sneak over the Atlantic Ocean into Chattanooga,” took his own immigration bill off the floor when he found out it would cost the state upwards of $11 million and could have jeopardized $217 million in federal funds for children’s health services and food assistance.  Shipley told The Tennessean:

“We came to ask ourselves, where could we … do the best thing for Tennesseans during the short time we had, and that was not coordinating a position on illegal immigration.”

Though Shipley and the Tennessee GOP might have put their plan for an immigration “crackdown” on hold, Shipley still “bristles” when asked about the possibility of a Hispanic voter backlash in response to his hard-line immigration rhetoric, saying “I assume the people you are talking about are not legal American citizens that don’t have the right to vote.”  In fact, a growing number of Hispanics in Tennessee can vote and chances are they aren’t happy with the current status quo.  Just last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) referred to Hispanics in the South — both documented and undocumented —  as a “population under siege and living in fear” — fear of the police, fear of the government and fear of criminals who prey on immigrants because of their vulnerability.

If that’s not enough, a Middle Tennessee State University poll conducted last year that asked about issues important to Tennesseans in the 2008 presidential race showed that undocumented immigration finished ninth out of 14 topics, with the economy as the top issue.  The director of communication research for the poll, Robert Wyatt, said:

“Illegal immigration never surfaces on that as a salient issue…What we’ve found over time is that attitudes about immigration have shifted so that a near-majority now says that yes, immigrants should have a path to citizenship.

The Tennessee poll echoes results of a more recent national poll which showed that 61% of Americans now support giving undocumented immigrants “the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.”  In the meantime, Dan Haskell, chairman of the Tennessee Jobs Coalition and lobbyist for the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, has said that he doesn’t expect the state legislature to be doing much work on immigration until it’s addressed at the federal level — which may come sooner rather than later.

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  • Margarita Beck

    As you can see by my first name (actually my second name, my first being Maria), I am Mexican American. My mother was born in Mexico and my father, myself and 3 siblings born in Texas.

    I have made 25 missions trips to Mexico, our team offers limited medical service, children’s Vacation Bible School, ladies Bible studies. Our men devote themselves to building a church for the towns and villages we worked at up and down along the Mexican border.

    My nationality and my mission work make it a bit difficult to separate the feelings of my heart from the matters at hand: immigration. Yes, many local, state and federal dollars are being spent on non-documented immigrants; health care, education, etc.

    I know from personal experience why most of them are here, for the same reason that my father made when he decided to move us to Ohio from Texas, so we could get a better education, a better life (I’m talking about the 1940’s).

    In 1997, a couple in our church told my husband and me that they felt called by God to reach out to the Hispanics in our city…but they didn’t speak Spanish, so they enlisted my aid. After a few months of Bible studies in a trailer park, we were able to move the “church” to the library of our church, later to a larger area.

    I heard many stories of how their lives were in Mexico; poor living and working conditions. Once when we were in Mexico, we noticed that a family of four children attended every daytime and nighttime service. I asked them to invite their parents to join us and she said her mother and father were in the US, working. She alone was taking care of her 3 younger siblings. She was only 11 and the youngest was not walking yet.

    I could go on and on about why parents make the decision to cross the border, legally, or illegaly. What should they do re: their citizen status? Two of our Mexican families are in the process of pursuing citizenship – but it is a very costly venture.

    All Hispanics who work where they are paid by check have taxes withheld from the pay. They fill out their income tax forms and pay, if they have to. Americans who hire Hispanics and pay them in cash (under the table) don’t have taxes withheld, for the benefit of this kind of employer.

    I know I am rambling, but I’m writing as things come to my mind. In the light of all this (and much more), I say, make a way possible for them to obtain citizenship.
    Maria Margarita Haynes Garza de Beck