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VOL. 129 | NO. 136 | Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memphis Immigration Reform Discussion Quiet But Complex

By Bill Dries

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As much of the national attention in the immigration reform debate was focused last week on Washington and protests in Southern California and Texas, a group of local leaders made the case for immigration reform in Memphis with much less attention.


The gathering Wednesday, July 9, on the campus of Christian Brothers University was part of a “national day of action” effort across 25 cities.

It was also a look at a national issue through a decidedly local lens. It includes some of the same questions in the national debate but also some different considerations as well.

Christian Brothers University president John Smarrelli noted that his own parents immigrated to the U.S. from Italy 70 years ago as he talked about the impact on higher education.

Smarrelli said the university is seeking private donations to pay what state and federal government funding won’t for undocumented students seeking an education at a school known for its engineering program.

“We’re doing our best in terms of discounting tuition and finding ways for these individuals to attend,” he said. “But I think members of our community have to step up, knowing that if we educate a student in sciences or in business that that student will contribute to the local economy in tremendous ways.”

To Latino Memphis director Mauricio Calvo, the issue has several fronts that can move simultaneously with the border being secured as laws are changed.

That’s not the view U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee took the day after the national day of action.

“The president needs to secure the border now – using the National Guard in the way that President Bush did if that’s what it takes – and deal with this crisis of unaccompanied children illegally entering our country,” Alexander said in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

Alexander would deal with that crisis by cutting off U.S. foreign aid to countries that don’t cooperate in a safe return of the children.

He is specifically critical of a Democratic amendment to the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Act that he believes may be the reason for the large group of children on the U.S. side of the border who have been at the center of protests in Southern California, where some of the children have been moved by federal immigration officials.

Calvo sees the problem differently.

“I understand that we are a nation of laws. But we are also a nation that can have those laws revised, and the laws need to be relevant to the people in the land,” he said. “We have criminalized working and that is a really sad thing. Working shouldn’t be a crime. … It’s more of a civil law rather than a criminal law. But yet, we are always having to define immigrants as criminals, and I think that’s wrong.”

Calvo draws parallels to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in laws being changed.

Lacy Upchurch, the president of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, said the current immigration system is not working in a state with a large immigrant population providing the farm labor. He called on elected leaders to “put politics aside” in finding a “permanent solution” that secures the border with a legal and achievable process for farm workers to find a path to citizenship.

Greater Memphis Chamber vice president Andre Dean called for a “pathway toward earned citizenship” that would increase pay for those workers as well.

Calvo touted the impact of immigration reform on talent retention in Memphis, where that has become a priority for both education leaders and business leaders.

In the process, Calvo talked about America as a nation “built by immigrants.” Over the decades, Calvo said, that remains true, but the work is being done “in the shadows.”

Calvo believes that without reform, the lack of changes in the laws to reflect the role immigrant workers play in the economy of Memphis and other communities nationwide has a “generational” impact that affects how children view law enforcement, education and any other undertaking that brings them into contact with the federal government.

“We’re talking about earned citizenship. We’re not talking about giving a green light to every single human being,” he said. “Have you been paying taxes? Have you been staying out of trouble? And gradually you become a citizen.”

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