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VOL. 11 | NO. 5 | Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dreamers Deferred

Federal decision on DACA could have a material impact on Memphis economy

By Andy Meek

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You never really get to the point where you can stand at a particular moment in time and forecast with any certainty how your life is going to turn out, how things are going to look or what’s going to be different over a long time horizon. That’s certainly the way it’s been, and still is, for Mauricio Calvo and Memphians like him.

A protest this summer in Memphis was held in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, which is set to expire. (Memphis News File/Houston Cofield)

He came to Memphis 25 years ago from Mexico City to attend Christian Brothers University. He was 18. He came from a teeming foreign metropolis of 25 million people, and one of the first things that assaulted his senses – he still remembers the smell of mulch that greeted him here in Memphis. So much was new. New city, new country. Little things stand out when you’re in a foreign place like that for the first time. Mulch – he’d never smelled anything like that before.

He couldn’t have foreseen everything that would follow. And while he had no plans to do so, he ended up staying here for good. As his student visa started winding down, he was doing many things. He opened a business, wanting to stay here as an entrepreneur.

“I tried 6 million things, it felt like,” he said. “It felt like every year I did something different. I sold real estate. I had a wholesale business. The only common denominator was that I sucked at everything. Nothing was working.”

He got married and had three children. He stayed in Memphis and eventually found his calling, as executive director of the nonprofit organization Latino Memphis. And just as he couldn’t have anticipated the turn of events his own life would take, the past 12 months or so have been the busiest, most highly charged and uncertain periods during his tenure with the organization:

A step-up in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids of undocumented families, both here and beyond Memphis. The Wall. Political rhetoric that dominated the 2016 presidential election campaign and which remains a potent force, as federal lawmakers reconsider a way to address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, which will soon expire and could force the deportation of up to 800,000 individuals who came to the U.S. as children of illegal aliens. DACA was removed from consideration in a bill passed Jan. 22 to end to a government shutdown.

CBU graduate Mauricio Calvo found his calling as the executive director of the nonprofit Latino Memphis. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“Every single person matters in a community,” Calvo said. “And there’s enough critical mass of immigrants here that whatever happens to this part of the community will impact the overall community. Obviously, the last 14 months have been extremely challenging, but also energizing. We’ve tried to ask how can we elevate the voices, how can we get together with other people and look at what the next 14 months and 14 years will be.”

One thing that has to be addressed in looking that far ahead is what to do about the children of undocumented parents who were brought to the U.S. and who’ve lived for years under a cloud of uncertainty. Uncertainty, because the pendulum seems to swing between tentative steps toward a legislative fix of some kind to hot rhetoric that all but freezes any action in its tracks.

Several leaders have been making their voices heard locally, advocating for some kind of long-deferred action. They call them Dreamers, the children who live under the protection of DACA that President Donald Trump last fall said he wanted to end, though he delayed that ending to allow time for a fix.

Latino Memphis – along with students from Calvo’s alma mater of CBU – organized a protest in September to call for continuation of President Obama’s DACA executive order. More than 200 people gathered as part of that protest outside the Clifford Davis-Odell Horton Federal Building Downtown.

CBU’s president John Smarrelli Jr. added his signature to a letter from half a dozen Memphis-area college leaders calling on Congress to pass legislation – the so-called Dream Act – that would phase young undocumented children in to becoming legal residents of the country.

Smarrelli, who said he didn’t have an estimate of the size of the CBU student population that falls in this category but guessed it could be around 10 percent, casts it in part as an economic issue and something that stands to benefit the country once it’s solved. It’s in our self-interest, in other words, to bring these young people into some kind of legal status.

John Smarrelli

“At the end of the day, President Obama kind of kicked the can forward with his executive order establishing DACA, but now we’re at a point where we need sustainable legislation to make these students part of the country and opportunities for them to at least be permanent citizens,” he said. “Not even necessarily a path to citizenship right now, but more just opportunities for them to work, to contribute to our economy to go to school. It’s important for them to have these opportunities, and the country needs skilled workers.

“You’ve got to have a pathway toward permanent residency, a pathway toward being able to work and contribute to society. And a sustainable one. So we don’t have to worry about going through all this again. So their families don’t have to worry about getting split up or being deported. It’s like, take away the anxiety, and let them earn what they get next. It’s got to be done by real, solid bipartisan legislation. And what I think we would end up with is a 1-million-person workforce that contributes to our society.”

For his part, Smarrelli has helped round up local and national philanthropy to help educate some Dreamers at CBU. In Memphis alone, he continues, the number of skilled jobs that go unfilled because workers can’t be found with sufficient training to fill them numbers in the five digits.

Students and others staged a protest this summer in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, which is set to expire. (Memphis News File/Houston Cofield)

“As a president, I felt I needed to help take up the banner” of the cause, Smarrelli said.

Jay Earheart-Brown, president of Memphis Theological Seminary, turns the focus to scripture in a discussion about DACA and what ought to be done. He, likewise, added his signature to the recent letter, along with Smarrelli.

“As a minister and leader of a theological seminary, I think I have a religious obligation to support what the Bible calls the alien and the sojourner in our midst, and to try to provide assistance to them in any way possible,” he says, by way of explaining his outspokenness on the issue. “As the book of Exodus says, God says to the Israelites ‘Do not oppress the stranger, the alien in your midst, because you were once slaves in Egypt yourselves.’ The basic principle being that all of us were at one time or another immigrants. And therefore, I think the job of religious people particularly is to deal compassionately with those who’ve come here.”

David Rudd

University of Memphis president David Rudd is on record as promising support to students affected by Trump’s decision on DACA.

“The American dream is alive and well at the University of Memphis,” was how he put it, also acknowledging that a wind-down of DACA promises challenges ahead for them.

Political leaders locally and statewide, meanwhile, have been staking out positions on DACA while acknowledging their power is constrained by what will get done, or not get done, on the federal level.

Around Labor Day last year, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery announced that the state of Tennessee would be dropping its legal challenge to DACA, citing in part the personal stories of some of the Dreamers and the potential they have to contribute to the workforce and society.

Slatery also opined in December that public colleges and universities in Tennessee cannot decide independently whether to offer in-state tuition breaks to those young people.

Mark White

Tennessee House member Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, is continuing to push a bill as he’s done for a few years now that would allow undocumented young people to pay in-state tuition – as opposed to the more expensive out-of-state tuition cost – to attend college in Tennessee. It’s an example of action being taken to fill the gap left by federal lawmakers going for years without solving the challenge of either integrating these young people into the mainstream or taking a more punitive step. Or leaving the status quo in place.

“This’ll be the fourth year I’ve had the bill,” White said. “It’s still getting tangled up in all the noise with illegal immigration, and I get that.

“We’ve got about 25,000, estimated, of these young people in our state. And we’re not doing anything but hurting our own selves by not letting them go on and be all that they can be. It’s not costing us anything. Dr. Rudd, all the universities in Tennessee are for this, because it will help them gain more paying students.”

The first year he tried to win support for the bill, it got all the way to the House floor – it passed in the Senate, as he says it does every year – and lost in the House by 1 vote. He’s been unsuccessful since then and acknowledges the conversation has only gotten more toxic around the issue nationally.

Students and teachers in the LITE (Let's Innovate Through Education) program, which program seeks to equip black and Latinx students for entrepreneurial and high-wage jobs. (Memphis News File/Houston Cofield)

“Everybody sees the advantage of having an educated population,” White said. “What are we going to do? There’s nowhere for them to go back home to, because this is their home. They’ve grown up here. We’ve already spent an average of $10,000 a year on their K-12 education. “They still don’t qualify for HOPE scholarships or Tennessee Promise or any federal Pell grant,” White added. “I’m a big supporter of saying – no matter what you feel about immigration, you don’t hold children accountable for what adults have done. I’m saying, let them go on and pay in-state tuition to go on to a college.”

Perhaps, as was the case with Calvo’s personal and professional journey and that of Latino Memphis and so many others, something that can’t be foreseen now will unfold in the coming weeks, months, years to put this issue finally to rest.

Calvo certainly hopes so. For now, as he heads in to the office each day, part of what’s on his mind are the children – young people like he once was – who came here without any say in the matter, dreamers today who await a fate from far away decision-makers that is out of their hands.

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