cover_story (2007-02)

“It feels like hell,” says Nelson Espinoza, who awoke one day to find a burning cross on his lawn. “We don’t go outside.”

“One lady said she will no longer use the library as long as Hispanics are using the library,” says librarian Nellie Rivera.

“They,” 2006 U.S. House candidate Kovach says, “want to weaken our country.”

Kit Brewer doesn’t like immigrants.

He pauses to clarify.

“By Mexicans, that’s kind of a generic term for me that also includes Salvadorans, Hondurans, etc…. I don’t want any immigrants from the Third World.” He also mentions Iraq and Sudan.

Brewer used to live in Antioch—which he calls “Hispanioch,” because of its large Hispanic population—but moved after growing tired of his child “having to step over drunk Mexicans in a ditch to get to the school bus.”

“Thank God I got out,” he says. “While I could still get something for my house.”

Brewer insists that he doesn’t have a problem with all immigrants, just the “Third Worlders.”

“If somebody wants to come here from Western Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, that’s fine. I would have hated to turn away Albert Einstein,” he says. “I don’t think that the next Albert Einstein is going to come from the Sudan, Mexico or Honduras.”

Unlike some other people who have strident opinions about immigrants and the impact that they’re having in the United States, Brewer doesn’t differentiate between most legal and undocumented immigrants. “A legal immigrant from the Third World is just an illegal immigrant with a green card,” he says.

Kit Brewer is not alone in his xenophobic leanings. Throughout Tennessee, there have been many public and private displays of sentiments that closely echo Brewer’s. Some of these have been benign—angry talk radio callers and ugly graffiti. Others have been decidedly less so.

In August of this year, in Smithville, Tenn., about 130 miles west of Knoxville, Cuban-born police Chief Agustin Clemente Jr. resigned his post after only a few weeks. In his letter of resignation, Clemente claimed colleagues, including the mayor who’d hired him, had used racial slurs against him.

In 2005, a Southeast Tennessee man was indicted on charges of building pipe bombs that he planned to put on buses carrying Hispanic workers.

In Maryville, the owners of La Lupita Mexican Store arrived at their shop one Sunday morning in May 2005 to find spray-painted swastikas and other white power missives all over their building. Rocks had been thrown through La Lupita’s windows. An outdoor freezer had been jimmied open, $6,000 worth of meat and vegetables spoiled. The vandals didn’t take a thing. (The 22-year-old instigator pled guilty in a Knoxville court this August and was sentenced to three years, with six months to be served in county jail and the balance on probation.)

A Koran was found defaced in a predominantly Somali Nashville neighborhood. Pages had been torn out of it, rubbed with feces and partially burned.

Last summer, the Espinoza family of Bowling Green, Ky., just over the Tennessee line, awoke to find a burning cross on their lawn. On their doorstep they found a cardboard placard, about 4-by-12 inches with a missive scrawled in black pen. On one side it read, “In my country, maybe. In my Neighborhood never.” On the other: “If you can’t read this. Oddy Ouss!! (sic).”

Nelson Espinoza, a 29-year-old, legal U.S. resident from El Salvador, was stunned by the flaming symbol of hate. “It feels like hell,” he says. “We don’t go outside.”

These incidents, and opinions like Brewer’s, are part of a growing backlash against one of the largest demographic shifts in the history of Tennessee—and the nation. Between 1990 and 2000, the national foreign-born population increased 57 percent, from 19.8 million to 31.1 million according to the Knight Foundation, a non-profit research group. During this same period, Tennessee’s foreign-born population increased 169 percent, four times the national average, ranking the state sixth in the nation overall in

The Tennessee Department of Health’s projections show Hispanic populations growing exponentially in most Tennessee counties over the next 10 years. In a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau update, it was calculated that there are approximately 10,000 Latinos currently living in Knox County, which amounts to 1.4 percent of the county’s population.

In the blink of an eye, we have gained tens of thousand of new neighbors. But not everybody here is in a welcoming mood. There’s a cold and creeping feeling among nativists that the traditional American way of life is under attack. For them, it’s a culture war on a grand scale. It’s about disrespecting the American flag, singing the national anthem in a foreign tongue and salsa eclipsing ketchup as the country’s No. 1 condiment.

Katherine Donato, a demographer and professor of sociology at Vanderbilt who specializes in migration between Mexico and the United States, explains the roots of this backlash succinctly. “We are in this place in 2006, in large part because of politics.”

She says that politicians have exploited the fear and anger surrounding the issue for political gain. Even a cursory look at this political season seems to bear out this observation. The candidates in last summer’s overheated Republican U.S. Senate primary in Tennessee were not only competing for a chance to take on Democrat Harold Ford Jr. Each battled mightily to be perceived as the candidate who was “toughest on the immigration issue.” Ford himself also used the issue to his advantage. He voted for the House immigration bill that would make felons out of church groups that feed, clothe or otherwise help undocumented immigrants. He touted the vote in ads that decried the “hundreds of miles of unprotected [U.S.] border.” (He was, in fact, to the right of his ultimate GOP opponent, Bob Corker, on the immigration issue.)

In the final days of November’s election, failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson began running a political ad featuring the daughter of a Mt. Juliet couple killed in a car accident by an undocumented immigrant. He was allegedly drunk behind the wheel.

Even Nashville’s local politicians have gotten in on the act. Metro Council member Eric Crafton recently proposed a law that would require all Metro business to be conducted in English. The bill passed on the second of three readings before the council early last month. In a recent Sunday Tennessean op-ed , Crafton compared undocumented workers to the barbarians who sacked Rome, saying that history’s largest and most powerful empire was “overrun with illegal immigrants… who at first worked as servants but then came so fast they did not learn the Latin language or the Roman form of government.”

Critics of Crafton’s bill say the law in its original form is completely unenforceable and probably unconstitutional. The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill. It has since been

And then of course there is talk radio. Last spring, at a rally against illegal immigration in Nashville, talk radio host Phil Valentine suggested that when people cross the border illegally, we should “shoot ’em.” The crowd, over 1,000 strong, cheered in delight. Onstage with the broadcast personality were three state lawmakers: Sen. Bill Ketron, Rep. Tom Dubois and Rep. Glen Casada. On Nov. 6, the day before Election Day, Valentine’s syndication company announced that his show would go national in January.

This heated rhetoric has had its intended effect. When two protesters showed up at another anti-illegal immigration rally last month, they were shouted down as “appeasers” and “traitors to America,” among other choice descriptors. “Those people really hate this country,” one of the rallygoers said.

Besides politics, this nativist movement is rooted in some very real fears about a rapidly changing way of life and pressures on the American social and governmental system, Donato says. “This backlash has occurred in places that have no history of the foreign born being around. Now, in a matter of 15 years, immigrants are in every corner of the country.”

Sen.-elect Bob Corker, who has spent most of the last year crisscrossing Tennessee in his bid for the U.S. Senate, has seen some of the frustration that this change has wrought. “It’s real, the discontent out there,” Corker says in a recent interview. “It could be [from] a school teacher or a school administrator in a school where they’re dealing with No Child Left Behind…. Everybody in the classroom has to move along at the same pace and yet there are people there who are putting a burden on the school [because] English is not the language that they speak…. Maybe [it’s] a county commissioner who’s sitting on a public hospital board and there’s tremendous amounts of free care that’s given—because if you show up at the emergency room… you’ve got to be cared for.”

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall says that immigrants have had a significant impact on his department.

“One out of 10 people arrested in Davidson County is born outside of the U.S.,” Hall says. Five years ago, that number was one in 20. Hall says that he has “no idea,” how many of those arrested are here illegally, but his department has applied for a federal program that would help identify illegals and begin deportation proceedings against them.

Corker says the impact that immigration has on public safety, health care and education cries out for sober policy, but local lawmakers with nativist leanings have different solutions in mind.

Ken Cherry, a Springfield town alderman, recently told a television reporter that if he hears someone speaking Spanish, he “tends to think they’re illegal.” This is after he said that he’d like to ban any and all undocumented immigrants from Springfield’s public parks. He also added that he’d like to see undocumented immigrants “holed up in a barbed wire tent” until he could “haul them up to where they came from and turn them loose.”

Sheriff Hall says he’s taken aback by such vitriol. “I was on one of these radio shows,” Hall says, “and [they were] asking me, ‘Well, I think you need to round all of these people up… what do you think?’” Hall was aghast. “This was the host, not a caller…. There is an element of people out there that scares me to death.”

This kind of rhetoric tends to frighten the immigrant community, whether they’re here legally or not.

Corker says that he fears long-term prejudice against immigrants in Tennessee, unless Congress can develop reasonable policy for both securing the borders and allowing those here illegally reasonable time to comply with immigration regulations.

“I had two people come up to me last night,” Corker says. “They were Hispanic, and you could just sense when they talk to you that people are looking at them and thinking that they’re here illegally, because that’s the topic of conversation.”

In Nashville, it’s not just conversation.

There’s a giant electronic sign towering high above a Nashville stretch of I-40, and for a number of weeks last spring, the sign, owned by an air-conditioning repair company, had a bold message. “IMMIGRANTS,” the sign flashed. “IF YOU’RE ILLEGAL, GO HOME. IF YOU’RE LEGAL, WELCOME TO AMERICA. SPEAK ENGLISH.”

The Marshall County Memorial Library is a short drive from the town square in Lewisburg, Tenn. Inside and out, it is every inch a small-town library. There’s a small children’s section with a selection of Mad About Madeline books. Next to that, a large shelf full of PBS documentaries collects dust beside popular DVDs and videos. A poster commemorating the 1984 Marshall County Tigers high school football team’s undefeated state championship run hangs by the front door.

Every month, the library board meets in a windowless, cinderblock room behind the checkout counter. When they met in September, it was most definitely not business as usual.

That’s because Robin Minor showed up. Minor, a social studies teacher at a nearby public school, was infuriated that Spanish-language books were being made available at the library. A round, doughy white man with a small brushy mustache, his hair parted severely to the right, Minor stood in pleated khakis, tugging the sagging waist of his pants upward as he addressed the small group of about a dozen library board members. Next to him hung a painting of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

“There shouldn’t be any Spanish-language books in this li-bary,” Minor said. “I would like to see a policy that if somebody is going to donate a book to this lib-ary, where English has been the dominant language since 1836, let’s make those books be donated in English only.”

His diatribe lasted for perhaps two minutes, punctuated by the frequent refrain, “There shouldn’t be no books in here that I can’t read.”

Eventually, the board’s president, John Rawe, spoke up. Rawe, a kindly looking older gentleman with long limbs and cowboy boots, pointed out that the Spanish-language collection was very small. He said that the library had books in many languages, including French, Japanese, Yiddish, Swahili and Russian. It is, after all, a library.

“Did you spend money on them (sic) books?” Minor spat.

“At one time, yes.” Rawe answered. He added that many of the books had been purchased some 20 years before.

“Well, you shouldn’t have spent money on that either,” Minor said. “If you’re spending one penny, ” Minor said, brimming with vitriol, finger wagging in front of his face, “ one penny is one penny too much.”

Shortly thereafter, Minor stomped out. The library board members shook their heads. “This is America,” someone muttered.

As Minor left in a huff, he may have been unaware that he barreled right past Nellie Rivera, a bilingual U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican descent who moved to Lewisburg with her husband to get away from the heat and hurricanes of Florida. She says she took the job at the library, where people call her Ms. Bubbly, just to have something to do a few days a week while her husband runs a gas station in town. She quickly became a community asset, building a small collection of Spanish-language books and magazines. She brought most of them—including a well-worn copy of People en Espanol— from her own home and also solicited donations. The entire collection takes up less than half a bookshelf.

There’s a sizable Hispanic community in Marshall County, and word soon got around that Rivera was there to help. She began offering free reading lessons to Spanish-speaking children at the library once a week. She also taught Spanish speakers how to use the computer. Rivera says that the lessons are taught in both Spanish and English.

A month after she started working at the library, the phone calls started.

“A lady kept calling and saying that she didn’t want her taxes going to buy Spanish books,” Rivera recalls.

Rivera’s boss, Jan Allen, dismissed the caller, but still more came in. They complained about the books, the reading lessons, even the fact that Hispanics used the library at all.

“One person said she will no longer use the library as long as Hispanics are using the library,” Rivera says.

One woman called Allen and asked if she’d checked her employees’ Social Security numbers and immigration documents.

Allen was appalled. “I looked at her being bilingual as a plus when I hired her,” she says. “Nellie also knows sign language.”

Meanwhile, out in the parking lot after that library board meeting, Minor spouted off to a group of sympathetic friends. In his middle school classroom, he made sure that everybody spoke English and that there were no books that he couldn’t understand. He and his friends agreed to call “all the talk radio shows in the morning.”

Nativists like Brewer and Minor often use experiential and anecdotal arguments such as, “my neighborhood’s ruined” or “I can’t read Spanish.”

“They made Kunta Kinte say ‘Toby,’” Rev. T.J. Graham shouted. “If it’s good enough for Toby, it’s good enough for me,” he said of the English language.

But there’s also a powerful factual argument that nativists use—that immigrants, both documented and otherwise, take jobs from native-born Americans.

The evidence seems boundless. Every morning, Home Depot parking lots and street corners in Hispanic neighborhoods across the country are jammed with day laborers looking for piecework. Fast food restaurants, chain drugstores and gas stations are veritable United Nations of minimum wage workers.

The overwhelming majority of those who come to live in the United States from other countries come because they want jobs, and they’re generally able to find them. Wouldn’t it stand to reason, then, that there are fewer jobs for the rest of us? According to some economists, demographers and social scientists, the answer isn’t that cut-and-dried.

Daniel B. Cornfield, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt whose expertise is in labor and migration, was the lead investigator for a 2003 study commissioned by Metro Government called the “Immigrant Community Assessment.” It gives an exhaustive accounting of the needs and impact of this large and growing population in Middle Tennessee.

“There is no dramatic effect on the Nashville labor market by the influx of immigration,” Cornfield says without ambiguity.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the immigrant population of Nashville quadrupled between 1990 and 2005. Cornfield compares this data to unemployment numbers from the labor department recorded during the same time period. The result? Unemployment didn’t fluctuate by more than two percentage points up or down during this massive influx of both legal and undocumented immigrants. Cornfield speculates that this influx may even have “sustained the robustness of the labor market in Davidson County.”

There are many social scientists who share this view. David Card, an economist at University of California at Berkeley, has conducted numerous studies on immigration and its effect on labor markets. One of these examined wages in Miami immediately after 125,000 Cubans showed up practically overnight and started calling it home. Card found that wages for unskilled workers in Miami were virtually unaffected. For black workers, wages actually increased. In other cities during this same period, wages for this population were down.

Cornfield is quick to point out that there are few recent studies examining how unskilled factory workers or those with degrees from technical schools fare when competing against foreign-born U.S. residents. He acknowledges that people in these backgrounds may be more adversely affected than professionals or those with a college degree.

Katherine Donato is also skeptical of the idea that immigrants are responsible for unemployed Americans, but she cautions that the jury is still out. “There’s no empirical evidence that clearly illustrates that immigrants take our jobs,” she says. “However, most of us believe that it certainly is possible that immigration could lead to competition in local labor markets.”

Professor Card at Berkeley is less circumspect. Last summer, he told The New York Times Magazine that “if Mexicans were taller and whiter, it would probably be a lot easier to deal with.”

As the last light faded from a clear, chilly late October afternoon, the Reverend T.J. Graham—a Nashville AM radio host—took the microphone before a sparse crowd in downtown Nashville’s War Memorial Plaza. This was the second “anti-illegal immi-

Before the proceedings officially started, he preached to a small group of reporters about the effects that “anchor babies” and border jumpers were having on Tennessee and the nation.

About 35 people had gathered for the rally, among them loyal listeners, a local television news crew, a radio reporter and some of Nashville’s homeless, who appeared to have taken semi-permanent residence in the park. Also present was a middle-aged woman accompanied by a small band of children wearing Halloween costumes.

And of course there were politicians. Though strictly B-list—a couple of Metro Council members and a Green Party U.S. Senate candidate—their presence only reinforced the notion that politicians, be they great or small, leap at the chance, any chance, to sound off about the scourge of illegal immigration.

The rally started with a prayer led by Rev. Graham. All assembled bowed their heads. One of the trick-or-treaters, a little girl in a witch costume with green face paint, doffed her pointy witch hat and held it behind her solemnly. Next to her, a little boy in a pirate outfit did the same.

Shortly thereafter, June Griffin addressed the crowd. Last August, the 67-year-old was arrested for walking into a Mexican grocery store in Dayton, Tenn., and ripping a Mexican flag off of the wall. She left the store, flag in hand. Griffin would later tell a Chattanooga newspaper that flying the Mexican flag on U.S. soil was “an act of war” that “insulted my citizenship.”

She seemed a very angry woman as she stood before the crowd. The light faded on the large, concrete plaza and the crowd felt very small as darkness approached. “We are not interested in the tower of Babel!” Griffin screeched, her voice cutting high and thin through oncoming night.

She demanded that newly arrived immigrants be required to pledge that they will learn to read, write and speak English. Also, they must “repudiate foreign allegiance.”

Griffin spent a good deal of time doing some repudiation of her own. She excoriated the Mexican government for not taking care of its citizens and suggested that Washington get tough with its neighbor to the south. Perhaps referring to General Santa Anna and the Alamo, she said, “We already whipped one of them down there with Davy Crockett.”

Griffin may have forgotten that Crockett died in that battle, which Santa Anna and the Mexican army won. Facts of history aside, her feelings have struck a deep chord with many in Tennessee and nationwide.

For many, language is at the heart of this. They think that many of today’s immigrants do not want to learn English or are too lazy to do so.

On a recent afternoon, Rev. Graham had two Hispanic American guests on his radio show to talk about how immigration has affected Tennessee. One of the guests, a young, attractive marketing specialist, suggested that learning other languages was a good idea in principle. “I would love to be able to speak many languages,” she said. “It gives you a broader cultural understanding.”

Rev. Graham’s listeners apparently didn’t share her intellectual curiosity.

“If she’s so interested in languages,” one caller practically screamed, “why doesn’t she get out of the field she’s in? Go back to college and study languages or travel the world or something!”

Another caller said, “There’s a plot by these people to take over the country.” Rev. Graham nodded sagely behind the microphone. “I know it,” he said. “I’ve seen the websites.”

The caller then advocated for “U.S. citizens [to] rise up and take this situation into their own hands.” The caller added, “I have no problem with legal immigrants,” before hanging up.

Rev. Graham has done his share to add fuel to the language debate. At his October rally, he recalled that when his ancestors were brought to America in bondage, the consequences for not learning English were dire.

“They made Kunta Kinte say ‘Toby,’” he shouted to the assembled protestors, referring to the movie Roots . Rev Graham’s voice grew to a shout as the diminutive crowd cheered. “If it’s good enough for Toby, it’s good enough for me,” he said of the English language.

Ironically, it seems that many of Middle Tennessee’s immigrants feel the same way.

Cornfield’s study included focus groups with intense discussion among a wide array of immigrants from many countries and continents. He says that one of the top priorities of many of the immigrants that his team spoke with was increased proficiency in English.

“One of the biggest complaints throughout our focus groups was the scarcity of English-language instruction,” Cornfield says. “Particularly,” he adds, “instruction above the beginner level.”

But language isn’t the only issue. There is a palpable feeling among nativists that this new wave of immigrants isn’t interested in embracing American culture the way previous generations of settlers have.

Bob Corker has seen it firsthand. “There’s a sense that there’s this—almost this different—culture that’s being created here, and I think people are concerned with having people come into our country that are not being assimilated,” he says.

Tom Kovach, a Republican candidate who ran against incumbent Democrat Jim Cooper for the U.S. House this fall, is somewhat more blunt. “They don’t want to be Americans,” he says.

Kovach is a contributor to a conservative commentary website, and in one of his postings he calls Martin Luther King a “Judas goat,” who was a “willing cog in the KGB machine against America.”

Kovach says that previous generations of immigrants came here to integrate. But not today’s immigrants. “They,” Kovach says, “want to weaken our country.”

Delfina Espinoza, a 52-year-old woman who has been active in the anti-illegal immigrant movement in the Clarksville area, agrees.

“They don’t want to become American citizens,” she says. “They don’t want to assimilate.”

Espinoza was born and lived most of her life in Texas, though her family is from Mexico. She’s married to a former U.S. Border Patrol agent. The two met when he pulled her over one day, thinking she had crossed the border illegally. Espinoza has worked as a translator in hospitals and says that she’s witnessed the resistance of immigrants to adapt.

“They don’t want to change their way of life,” she says. “That’s what it boils down to. Mexicans are Mexicans…. I’m proud of my heritage, but I’m an American. My oath is to America. My allegiance is to America.”

It’s true that many immigrant groups are slow to adapt to American culture. According to Cornfield and his research team, it’s not because of some kind of cultural intransigence or laziness. Many immigrants interviewed in Cornfield’s focus groups said they very much wanted some way to learn about daily American life. Cornfield says they were interested in everything from the experience of “shopping in a big supermarket” to gaining financing for purchasing a home.

According to the study, immigrants want to understand the English language and culture; many of them just don’t yet.

“One lady said she will no longer use the library as long as Hispanics are using the library,” says librarian Nellie Rivera. 

Tom Kovach has little time for the academics at Vanderbilt who have spent careers studying the very components that make up the mosaic of modern American immigration.

“Oh,” he sighs, when asked about Cornfield’s study. “You mean those ‘experts.’ ” He makes air quotes with his fingers, illustrating his disdain, before launching into a diatribe against Katherine Donato, whom he particularly dislikes.

For politicians, it’s easy to frame the complexities and contradictions of integrating an immense new population in terms that are sure to have the greatest emotional effect. Telling voters that immigrants are taking our jobs, invading our borders and wiping our culture off the face of the earth simplifies the issue and lends itself to easy solutions. Seal the borders. Arrest, detain, deport. Felonize the undocumented. Fine those who hire them.

It also creates an atmosphere of militant resistance. As the caller to Rev. Graham’s radio show said, “If the government doesn’t solve this problem, then U.S. citizens [will] rise up and take this situation into their own hands.”

Back at the Marshall County Memorial Library, John Rawe, the library board’s president, stands shaking his head at the antics of Robin Minor, the man who thought that all books in the library should be in English.

Rawe talks about a vacation he took recently with his wife to visit her ancestral homeland in Ireland and Scotland.

“While I was over there” he says, “I really came to understand the South. Over there, just like in the South, there’s an attitude of, ‘I’ll fight you any way I can.’ ” Here, Rawe says, if there’s a threat, people and those close to them rise up.

He puts up his fists. A gold ring etched with a horse’s profile in a diamond horseshoe shines in the dull, fluorescent, library light.

“And if I have a friend and someone fights him, that’s my enemy too.” The old man drops his fists and shakes his head. “That’s why we’re the Volunteer State.”