In the past few years, according to the 2010 census, immigrants have made up about 13 percent of the national population. That’s about 40 million foreign-born people who call the United States Home. The most current census data shows that more than a third of immigrants came to the United States after 2000. Most new immigrants to the United States come from India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines. Data collected during the 2010 census showed that 67 percent of immigrants now settle in the South (mainly Florida and Texas), and the West (California is home to one in four immigrants, according to census data), while most immigrants in the 1960s settled in the Northeast and Midwest.
Though census data shows immigrants make up less than 9 percent of Tennessee’s population and just 3 percent of the Knoxville Metro Area’s population, immigrants come to Knoxville for several different reasons: to escape persecution from governments, to make more money, to get away from constant violence, or to take advantage of the educational opportunities in the city. Here are just a few stories of Knoxville immigrants and how they found new lives here.
Mary Dai and Vincent Thang
Myanmar, also known as Burma, endured one of the longest-running civil wars in history. Although Burma became independent from Great Britain in 1948, there was a coup in 1962 that gave rise to a military dictatorship, which was only formally dissolved in 2011 after a general election was held in 2010. A civilian government runs the country now, though the military still has significant influence.
For Mary Dai, 38, and Vincent Thang, 40, two Burmese refugees who have settled in Knoxville, the freedom the United States offers is a relief. In Myanmar, Dai and Thang owned a small paper copying business. They say government officials ordered them to make copies of a large order of documents. But when their power went out, Dai and Thang were unable to fill the order by the deadline the government gave them. In response, the government forces trashed their house, confiscated their ID’s and passports, and threatened further harm, they say. Dai and their young son Henry, now 7, immediately fled Myanmar for Malaysia. Thang was able to join them a couple months later.
But life in Malaysia wasn’t easy to begin with, either. The family had traveled there without passports or visas, and they were forced to hide out for about four months. At that time, they were directed by friends to the United Nations office, where they were able to get their ID’s replaced and get work permits.
“We were always scared the police [in Malaysia] would arrest us. We were always worried they’d find us in our apartment,” Dai says of the first few months there.
Thang found work at a hotel, and Dai worked at a pizza restaurant for about two years. But then their work permits expired. Thang and Dai sought help from the UN once again, which assisted them with new visas and plane tickets to the United States in 2011. Thang and Dai say they didn’t choose Knoxville as their destination. The UN made the arrangements on their behalf. On July 7 of that year, they landed in New York City, caught a flight to Chicago, and another to Knoxville.
“Everything is very different [here],” Dai says. “The government [in Myanmar] is very bad.”
“It controls everything about the people,” Thang adds, from businesses, to what people can buy.
Dai says the most unusual part about living in the United States is not having to worry about her family’s safety.
“Everywhere we were always worried,” she says.
“We feel freedom,” Thang says, which is why they wanted to come to the United States. “We were looking for opportunity for my children.”
When the family first arrived in Knoxville, they were assisted in settling in by Bridge Refugee Services, a program that helps newcomers with housing, work, and English lessons. The local organization set up their little North Knoxville apartment, which is now decorated with decorative fans and pictures of Henry in his kindergarten graduation hat and gown. Both Dai and Thang say they’re hoping to improve their English, though they took lessons for two months when they first arrived, with the help of the Bridge.
Thang and Dai are most impressed with the U.S. government, calling it good and fair compared to Myanmar’s. Here, Thang says, he has the freedom to buy a car, and plenty of opportunity to find work. Though Thang has already been laid off of one job, he’s currently working as a machine operator on the night shift at DENSO Manufacturing in Maryville, he says he’s always worried about being laid off again.
“The economy was down,” he said. “200 people got laid off” at his last job.
Dai, who stays home with their 4-month-old daughter Emily and Henry, says she hopes to find a job soon, too. In the meantime, she’s been able to learn a little more English by watching movies and TV shows (but she also likes watching Korean movies).
Dai and Thang stay busy working and caring for their children, but they say they do enjoy going out every now and then to eat at Chinese restaurants (Thang says it’s easier to go to buffets instead of having to read and order from a menu), and going shopping. Thang immediately says Best Buy is his favorite store, but he and Dai also like going to Walmart and JCPenney.
“We like shopping. When he has an off day every week, we go,” Dai says.
Thang also likes watching sports. He says he prefers soccer (“English football”) to American football.
“I don’t understand how to play the football here!” he says.
The family came to Knoxville with a group of people also from Myanmar, and they occasionally see each other to catch up. But Thang and Dai say the other families are also busy with their work.
Like many American families, Dai and Thang’s goals are pretty simple. They want to find good jobs. They want to buy a house one day. They want to improve their English. And they want to see their new country’s sights. Thang says he wants to see Hollywood and Dai says she wants to see New York again. But they hope to make Knoxville their permanent home.
“We are happy. We like it here. We feel like we are safe,” Dai says.
Jesus Vallez came to the United States from Mexico with a tourist visa in 2008. His father had died three years before, and he had a young son to support. He’d planned to stay here for six months and return to his family, but he never made enough money for the trip back.
Here, Vallez, 43, works in construction. It’s heavy work, he says, but he doesn’t mind.
“It was very different from my work in Mexico. It was in an office on a computer with lawyers,” he says. “With the work you could afford to do one thing, but then you can’t afford to take care of other needs [in Mexico].”
With the money he earns here, he’s able to support his family back home. Last year, his mother in Mexico became very ill, and doctors were unsure of what was wrong with her. Vallez had to continue working here to make sure he could pay for all the bills. His mother died last November. He was unable to be with her in her last days.
Vallez’s wife Yesenia, who stayed with their son in Mexico, developed kidney stones, and died three years ago at the age of 34. Vallez says she couldn’t tolerate the side effects of her medication and stopped taking it, and died while taking a nap. He wasn’t able to be there for his son, Jesus Salvador, either.
“I spoke to my son and told him I needed to be here to work to keep supporting him,” he says through a translator at the FISH Hospitality Pantry on Scott Avenue, where he spends some Fridays learning English. “A couple of times, I thought it might be better to be with my son, but then I wouldn’t be able to [support him],” Vallez says.
But Mexico was also a dangerous place, Vallez says. He used to take his son to the park near their house there, until drug cartels started leaving decapitated body parts there.
“I didn’t want my son seeing something like that. So I wouldn’t take him there anymore. My son would ask ‘why?’ and I would say we just couldn’t,” he says. “There’s not as much violence here. No explosions or decapitations.”
Vallez’s only family here is his sister, with whom he came to the United States, and that makes the holiday season tough.
“I don’t think it’s right to celebrate without my son,” he says. “For me it’s very sad. [There are] wonderful holidays and celebrations. [But] my son is not with me. This is not good. It’s not as happy as it should be.”
Thanksgiving isn’t much better, either. Vallez says that his sister and her family celebrate it, but he stays home and doesn’t leave his bedroom much.
But Vallez’s experiences in the United States have been largely positive.
“In the U.S., many people believe in God and spiritual values,” he says. “Americans are good people. Only one or two [are not].”
In Mexico, young people don’t generally go to church regularly, he says. He didn’t go to church very often, either. But Vallez says here, the church has become a refuge for him.
“I’ve learned to pray and be closer to God. I have access a church 24/7,” he says.
Vallez has become active at both Sacred Heart Cathedral and All Saints Catholic Church since he arrived here. He says he had a spiritual awakening here, which he thinks might not have happened had he stayed in Mexico. And, he says, people specifically from Knoxville are generally more spiritual than people he’s met in his travels to religious conferences in Ohio and California.
The generosity of the people of Knoxville has inspired him to give back. He came to the FISH pantry to get groceries, and found out about the English classes held there. He was so impressed with the services available, that he offered to volunteer his time to help out around the place.
That’s quite a turnaround from what his life was like in Mexico.
“In Mexico, I want to be paid [to help],” he says. “Here, I don’t need money.”
He adds that even though he worked on a computer in a law office in Mexico, he makes much more money here, which he continues to send home to his son, who’s now 14.
But Vallez knows what people say about Mexican immigrants.
“Keep in mind, we don’t come here to steal from people,” Vallez says. “It’s not our intention at any time to cause problems ... We come to work.”
And, he says, if the tables were turned, and Americans were coming to Mexico to work, he’d be part of the welcoming committee to help people get settled in.
Vallez hopes to bring his son to the United States one day. It’s safer here, and he can get a good education. But in the meantime, Vallez says he’s grateful for the people who have helped him, both with food and clothing, and spiritually.
“People help each other more here. I’ve never seen a place like this [FISH Pantry] in Mexico,” he says.
Maria Benitez came to the United States 17 years ago from Mexico. She had the chance to come on a work visa, but never used it. She says it was only for six months, and the company who issued it would have her deported immediately if she stayed longer. So she walked through the desert to get here.
Benitez, 40, came to live with her brother, whom she’d visited several times. He’d lived in the United States for seven years before Benitez found him and began visiting him. He persuaded her to make the move by telling her she’d make plenty of money since she was a hard worker.
In fact, she lived with her brother and his roommates for several years on a farm near Jefferson City. It wasn’t easy living with so many men, she says, after spending much of her life living with her mother and sister. The men drank heavily and usually excluded her from their gatherings. She had to drive several hours to get to work in Knoxville. Life in Tennessee was not what she expected.
“I suffered because I thought it [would be] easy,” she says. Before she found a job of her own, her brother and the people they lived with would leave her alone in the house from 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., she says. It took her six months to find a job.
The house in which she lived was just off a highway, and sometimes, she says, she thought about running out to the road, waving her arms, and yelling “Immigration! Here I am!”
Now, though, Benitez laughs easily about her first few years here. She’s a bit embarrassed about how little English she knows, though her two young daughters help her out. That’s why she spends Fridays at the FISH Hospitality Pantry, where the class of mostly Spanish-speakers learn English together. While she worked in the kitchen at Calhoun’s for five years, she and her coworkers learned to just say “yes” to everything their boss said when they couldn’t understand him. During her time at the restaurant, she was able to get a car and drive herself to work every day.
“Everything was different because I couldn’t speak [the language]. All I could do was watch what people did,” she says about her first few years here. She laughs and says, “I used to ask my coworkers ‘what if he tells us to go to [another] room and we say “yes” to everything without understanding?’”
She also worked at Prestige Cleaners for a couple years before she had her first daughter nine years ago, and has stayed home with them both ever since. Her husband Gabriel now supports the family.
She says she’s learned about American holidays from her daughters when they started going to school, though she laughs when she mentions “the rabbit holiday” (Easter). For the longest time, she says, it made no sense for rabbits to hatch eggs.
Since her daughters have started going to school, she’s learned more about the meanings of major holidays like the Fourth of July (which she calls “beautiful”) and Halloween, but also about Presidents’ Day, Veterans Day, and a handful of historically significant dates taught in schools.
Christmas is pretty similar in the two countries, but in Mexico, the New Year is met by two men—though one is dressed like a woman—who dance throughout her town.
“They get about a hundred bottles of liquor,” she says, laughing again.
Though she misses her home, Benitez says her daughters’ access to good education is one of the best benefits of living here.
“Our children who have been born here have a better opportunity [to succeed],” she says.
But things have changed since she first arrived in Knoxville. People used to care less about race, Benitez says. These days, she says she starts shaking from head to toe when she sees a police car, and is always worried about being stopped by an officer.
When she first arrived, the owners of the farm where she lived with her brother would invite the group to join them for Thanksgiving dinner (which she calls a “beautiful” holiday). She’s kept in touch with the family over the years, she says. Whenever she can, she visits the family now, and her daughters help translate between the two families.
“It would be nice if we would be received as guests [like that],” Benitez says. “I used to like it better when there wasn’t a sense of discrimination everywhere.”