Standing room only at Nashville immigrant and refugee rights forum
Immigrant families, faith leaders, and community members led a procession through Morristown, Tennessee, on April 12th, to express solidarity with those affected by the raid. | Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition

“I am a woman. I am a Mexican. My family lives in fear every single day”- Veronica Zavaleta

NASHVILLE – Veronica Zavaleta, a homeowner, a business owner, mother, and immigrant gave a moving account of her feelings of terror at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Her narrative was given at a public forum organized by the Tennessee Immigrant Rights and Refugee Coalition (TIRCC) on Thursday, July 25, at the Greater Unitarian Universalist Congregation in the Green Hills section of  Nashville.

“I am your neighbor, a Tennessean and have been in Nashville for 20 years,” she told those assembled, adding that one of her children is studying to be a pediatrician.

The forum was titled “Beyond Welcoming: Dismantling Nashville’s Deportation Pipeline.”Although the forum was taking place on the heels of an abortive attempt by ICE agents to arrest a migrant father and his minor son on Monday, July 22, this meeting had been planned well in advance of that incident.

TIRRC’s Policy Director, Lisa Sherman-Nickolaus, optimistically expressed her hopes for the future saying, “We feel encouraged and positive that Nashville will live up to its values.”

The meeting was standing room only and was attended by community members from the city’s diverse population. The forum was also well covered by the Nashville media including the local paper, The Tennessean. The headline in that paper read “TIRRC forum on deportation draws hundreds.”

Sherman-Nicklaus of Guatemalan background spoke of how Nashville resources were being co-opted by ICE and that immigration is the “central issue facing the country.” She talked of how ICE is terrorizing families and communities across the nation.

Most, if not all, U.S. cities have large migrant populations. Nashville has an immigrant population of more than 12 percent and that figure mirrors the national average. Approximately one-third of Nashville students are from non-English speaking families. In some of the city’s high schools, more than 20 languages are spoken. It was also mentioned that several years ago, in this regard, an English-only referendum, sponsored by conservative politicians, was soundly defeated by Nashville voters.

There was much optimism that the next Metro government would pass “bold progressive policies” to benefit immigrants. This brought to mind that the city will be having mayoral elections on August 1.

TIRCC spoke of how the current immigration system was outdated and broken. Indeed, for some immigrants to get citizenship it could take more than three decades. Also, there are mixed-status families. Some migrants are married to U.S. citizens and others have children born in the country. Hence, under the current system, such families can be separated.

A wealth of legal information was provided by the TIRCC legal director, Mary Kathryn Harcombe, who stated that immigration law is “incredibly complicated.” Undocumented migrants have a right to an attorney at deportation hearings. All immigration proceedings are civil. ICE often lies when conducting its operations. Most offenses are for just driving without a license and the undocumented cannot get a driver’s license. It is a “Catch 22.”

The fear of deportation is resulting in pregnant women being afraid to seek prenatal care. Mothers are afraid to send their children to school. Parents are too frightened to even get eyeglasses for their children. Immigrants are afraid to report crimes and can be preyed upon by criminals. They believe that any contact with government authorities will result in automatic deportation.

Some legal clarifications were given, such as a detainer is for ICE to pick up an immigrant  and to ask a local jail to hold that detainee. This is where ICE contracts enter the picture. For, example in Nashville the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office is under contract to rent space to ICE for the detention of those arrested. From the local jail, detainees are taken to Louisiana and held there until deported.

TIRCC said a demand should be made for the cancellation of contracts with local authorities that rent bed space to ICE. The communities should know the limits of ICE power. ICE often does not have proper warrants for private property. Immigrants do not have to open their doors for ICE. However, once a door is opened that is considered giving ICE permission to enter.

Beyond Welcoming: Dismantle the Deportation Pipeline forum, Nashville, Tenn., July 25, 2019. | Melanie Bender / PW

The local police can’t make an arrest for an immigration violation. All immigration is under federal jurisdiction. Oftentimes gross violations of law are made in the immigration process. For example, instead of receiving a notice to appear for a court hearing, migrants often will simply receive a deportation order.

Clerical errors and lack of notice are commonplace. A missed hearing, resulting from a clerical error, can lead to an “in absentia” deportation order, issued by a judge when a migrant fails to appear for a hearing. Case files can contain numerous errors.

There is a strong and militant opposition in the Nashville community to the Trump policies of having immigrant families living in a state of terror. Just recently an administration spokesperson said the purpose of the ICE raids was to keep migrant families continually looking over their shoulders every day.

TIRRC Policy Director Sherman-Nicklaus announced that Nashville Mayor David Briley had advised that $100,000 was being directed to a legal defense fund for TIRRC.

The “Beyond Welcoming” forum  sponsored by TIRRC was aimed at providing direction to the incoming Metro Nashville government for the better treatment of immigrant communities. Moreover, it is also an initiative to train community members and elected officials to protect migrant families from the terror of ICE orchestrated  by the Trump administration.

The meeting  ended with the call “Always Stand Your Ground” when confronted by ICE.


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.