Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Putting "English Only" in context: how we got here

Yesterday, Mike Byrd at Enclave described immigrant policy politics as "a fight to which Tennessee is late in coming..." (see here).

In response, I reviewed Tennessee's recent history using the lives of immigrants as a political weapon, with 2006 being a pivotal year here, as it was in the rest of the country:
"a fight to which Tennessee is late in coming..."

I understand your point if you are saying that Tennessee's most recent immigration comes after similar waves that came less recently to other parts of the country. Otherwise, if you are saying that Tennessee hasn't been in the thick of the immigration wars over the past few years, it is to the credit of those on the immigrants' side of the fight that you have that impression.

Things really started heating up on a national scale in 2006. One key event was that the U.S. House voted to make all illegal immigrants felons in HR 4437. That extreme measure sparked the major pro-immigrant rallies across the nation and united conservatives and liberals in opposition - the Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land shared a stage with Teddy Kennedy, for example.

Tennessee was right there with the rest of them.

In the summer of 2005, FAIR convened here with Marsha Blackburn and Phil Valentine in tow. About that same time, a Middle Tennessee judge ordered a woman to learn English or lose custody of her children. The next thing you know, the state Republicans are announcing their formation of an immigration task force. In November 2005, Steve Gill signaled that immigration would be the GOP's wedge issue against Bredesen in 2006.

If you're calling immigrant politics a "fight," the fight had been brought to Tennessee. Natives and immigrants alike took action in response.

Gatherings were held, thousands marched in solidarity, workers staged a walk-out, students trained in advocacy, and billboards went up proclaiming our state a Welcoming Tennessee.

Marsha Blackburn held a Congressional hearing in which she set up health care executives to scapegoat illegal immigrants for cost pressures in TennCare, they refused to comply, and she refused to listen.

My readers imagined political campaigns in which their views on immigration were trumpeted instead of some of the scapegoating that was popular at the time.

Avi Poster hosted one of his first educational forums on immigration, from which was born the Coalition of Education about Immigration.

Claudia Nunez was taken from her family and scheduled for deportation - and at about the same time the Nashville City Paper ran an editorial calling for a simplification of the path to legal status.

In nearby Marshall County, a trilingual librarian was defended by the library board after her bilingual storytimes came under fire.

Still, in 2006, English Only was launched during Hispanic Heritage Month, starting its successful run in the Metro Council before it was vetoed in 2007 by Mayor Bill Purcell. Also, Gustavo Reyes became the justification for Davidson County asking for 287(g). The Nation ran a cover story finding nativism in Nashville. Phil Valentine broke out the "shoot him" solution. Police responding to a call about "a couple of Mexicans" shot and killed Fermin Estrada in front of his family at a barbeque he was hosting on his own land.

We've really been in the thick of this for a while. That it's not an all-out-war in Tennessee is to the credit of advocates, immigrants, and the legislators who have stood up against the negativity.

Unfortunately, you're right about none of this being over on January 23, 2009. For example, in January 2007, one of the questions I had for Sheriff Hall before 287(g) was formally launched was, what happens next? It's no shock that the answer was open-ended:
HNN: When illegal immigrants continue to commit crimes after 287(g), what is the next power or set of powers that you could envision being requested for your department or for the police department?

Hall: That is a question for the federal government. They would be the entity that would determine whether or not they want to give local jurisdictions any further powers.
Even though others are already planning their next steps to antagonize immigrants, I am hopeful that with each passing year, history is taking Nashville further in the direction of humanity and hospitality.

We certainly have a chance to move in the direction of humanity and hospitality when the English charter change proposals come up for a vote in January - if we defeat them.

Consider the timing of when the special election will be held: the week of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The week of the inaugural.

This is Nashville's Moment. It very well may be Tennessee's year.

We should not allow our optimistic spirit to be quenched and our neighbors to be demonized as they are used as mere political pawns. We cannot let anyone advance the minute hand on the doomsday clock for immigrants - which also debuted in 2006.

Sign up with Nashville for All of Us. Join the Facebook groups in opposition to English Only. Sign up for a phone bank.

We got here through 2006. Let's define our 2009 with our history, our legacy, our grandchildren - and our neighbors - in mind.
Photo by Diego Sevilla Ruiz. Licensed under Creative Commons.
This post includes modificiations from my original comment on Enclave.

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