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Welcoming Tennessee on the Front Page of the Tennessean 

'Welcoming' effort addresses residents' fears and perceptions

By Janell Ross


More often than not, in a combination gas station and coffee shop near Smithville, Tenn., the topic of conversation turns to immigrants and the effect they have on Tennessee.

They rob American workers of minimum-wage jobs because they'll work for less, customers say. They have as many children as possible so that they can lay claim to food stamps and TennCare. They don't pay taxes and don't care to learn English.

Al Sue, a transportation company executive who travels Tennessee for work, hears the same thing at stops not just in Smithville, about an hour southeast of Nashville, but all over the state."Just about anytime you're in there or any one of these places where people gather, you are going to hear about it," said Sue, who ranks illegal immigration and misinformation among his top concerns. "One of them starts in on immigrants, and before long there are a lot of people who are nodding their heads to a bunch of stuff that is 70 percent false, but 90 percent believe it to be true."

The people inside those coffee shops are the kind Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition workers want to reach. The group recently received a $50,000 grant to expand its Welcoming Tennessee program, money to fund thought-provoking billboards or gather people to air fears and complaints.

Other groups are joining in — starting conversations about the estimated 4 percent of Tennessee's population born in other countries. The topics are as simple as why various groups settled here and as complex as immigration and tax laws.

"We're not so much trying to change the public's concept of who is American … but to get people to think, to use reason instead of reacting to immigrants from a place of frustration and fear," said Stephen Fotopulos, the coalition's executive director.

It's a long-term effort

The grant, from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, is just the latest funding stream for a long-term effort to help Tennesseans understand their newest neighbors.

Last year, Shelbyville residents began to express fear about changes brought on by large numbers of Somali refugees moving into town for jobs at Tyson Foods' chicken processing plant.

The coalition erected a series of billboards, one depicting a Somali family, the mother dressed in a traditional head scarf, the father and sons in Polo shirts and sweater vests. It read: "Like you, we are people of faith and want a better future four our children. We love America and are proud to call Shelbyville home.

In February, police were called to the Tennessee Career Center office in Shelbyville to stop a shoving match between some of the hundreds of applicants trying to navigate the formerly first-come, first-served process to apply for jobs at Tyson Foods.

Some American-born workers thought they should get preference over foreign-born workers that a relief agency brought in from Nashville.

Two months later, the coalition hosted a documentary film screening in Shelbyville about Tennessee's Somali population. About 50 of the town's roughly 19,500 people came to watch, ask questions about the city's newest immigrants and talk to Somali community leaders.

"I don't know what might have come out of that meeting, those signs or anything else," said David Smith, a longtime Shelbyville resident. "They've got their point of view, and they are welcome to it. This is America. … But there are some real struggles, and real trouble around here, and immigration is just, well, it's one more thing."

The coalition also worked to shape Nashville's discussion on making English the city's official language. In 2006, when the council was considering such a measure, the coalition erected about 50 billboards around Nashville with a variety of messages on the theme "Welcome the immigrant you once were."

Not long afterward, supporters of the measure posted their own billboard message: "Metro Council, welcome to America, we speak English here, pass the bill. Immigrants, no habla Ingles? No freeo stuffo from el governmento, comprende por favor?"

Then-Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed that measure. When English-only came up again, this time as a ballot measure in January, it lost by a 5,960-vote margin.

"I think where you can see the impact is in the way people talk and the way that they choose to act when something like the English-only vote comes along," Fotopulos said.

Tolerance grows, but …

Part of the coalition's work is dissecting those coffee-shop conversations about immigration.

The reality is that some employers do hire illegal immigrants, and some of these employers do so to skirt wage and other employment laws. But, before the economic downturn, many Americans would not consider a slew of jobs in food processing, agriculture and other industries, according to the Farm Foundation of America.

Immigrants, like everyone who buys things, pay sales tax. Many immigrants also have other taxes deducted from their pay — the U.S. Social Security Administration estimates their money is part of the $745 billion unclaimed benefits pool in the Social Security Trust Fund, spokes woman Patti Patterson said.

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for public benefits, but all U.S. citizens are, so children of immigrants born here qualify. Immigrants tend to come here for work, and their prime work and childbearing years coincide.

That places their children among the fastest-growing U.S. demographic groups, said Carl Haub, senior demographer for the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington-based agency that analyzes population trends.

There is no statistical evidence that recent immigrants are learning English more slowly than earlier immigrants, said Gary Gerstle, a historian at Vanderbilt University who specializes in U.S. immigration.

But whether Tennesseans are learning these things or not, Middle Tennessee State University's twice-yearly polls on the area's top concerns suggest a growing tolerance for illegal immigrants, said Ken Blake, director of the poll.

In 2004, 54 percent of Tennesseans polled said if a guest worker program were established, it should include a way for illegal immigrants to attain citizenship. By spring 2008, the figure reached 63 percent.

But Tennesseans are far more likely than the rest of the nation to believe immigration should be limited — 53 percent compared with 40 percent.

That's probably the outgrowth of fears about resources, said Ted Nordhaus, a political psychologist, strategist and managing partner at Oakland, Calif.-based American Environics.

Beginning in 2006, while polling people on health-care reform, Nordhaus noticed many wanted to be sure that expanded health care didn't include illegal immigrants.

"There is this notion that illegal immigrants are somehow freeloaders who come to this country to take advantage of public benefits," Nordhaus said.

Were Nordhaus advising the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, he said, he'd tell members to emphasize immigrants' love of this country.

"I would advise them to express much more explicitly that we believe in America, even the American Dream, that we came to America because we always dreamed of being American," he said.

Stories show challenge

Fotopulos' office and others who work to help immigrants routinely hear of incidents that demonstrate the job they'll have changing attitudes.

In late 2007, a Mexican-American woman went into a downtown post office with the necessary paperwork to submit a passport application, she said, and a worker told her the application wouldn't be accepted. There was simply no way she could be a U.S. citizen because of her broken English, the worker said.

"Just to file my application, I had to bring an attorney with me," Martha Sonia Palomo said. "… We know there are a lot of people who don't like us (Latinos), who don't trust us, and discrimination exists. Then these things happen, and you know it's true."

A local U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman said employees aren't empowered to reject applications based on the applicant's appearance or language skills.

Last year, immigrant entrepreneurs formed a group to address harassment and unfair treatment they've faced in trying to set up businesses. Alfonso Nieto, a Spanish-language newspaper owner who heads the group, said the challenges are many.

"It's little things, it's big things, it's the English Only, it's the way people are treated in line at the grocery store," he said. "I'm not saying that everybody is prejudiced. There are a lot of good people, very nice people in Tennessee. But there are some people who are angry who see an opportunity when there is an immigrant in front of them to get revenge."