Monday, November 16, 2009

A Community Trembles in Fear

By Jan Snider

She looked so tiny holding the calloused hand of her young uncle; just five years old and excited about starting kindergarten. But as she shuffled down the polished floors of the church hallway toward our immigration legal clinic, there was worry in her big brown eyes.

She didn’t know when she would see her daddy again. He was picked up for a broken tail light and locked in detention, on track for removal from the U.S. because he was undocumented. Her mother, a U.S. citizen, had long ago abandoned the family. Her father was going to be deported and she was, most likely, going to be placed in state custody.

Suddenly, thoughts of new school shoes and fresh crayons were replaced with fear and uncertainty. These are the same feelings that so many of our clients at Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors face every day. When Immigration and Customs Enforcement gave local law enforcement the power to act as federal immigration agents, a community began to feel hunted. A policy known as 287(g) has forced them into the shadows.

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall persuaded the citizenry of Nashville in 2007 that 287(g) would make us a safer community by aiding in the deportation of “criminal illegal aliens:” drug dealers, thieves, and violent individuals. But, as it unfolded, 80 percent of those processed for deportation were originally arrested for minor violations. Something as simple as fishing without a license or failure to use a turn signal suddenly resulted in deportations that ripped families apart. What was intended to be a policy to protect our citizenry from the most violent criminals has turned it into a home-grown remedy for our nation’s broken immigration laws.

Just this past month, six communities throughout the nation acknowledged the disastrous impact of 287(g) and revoked their agreements. Despite the shifting momentum, Nashville’s leadership quashed debate about this issue and voted to continue the program.

When we formed Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors nearly two years ago, our mandate was clear. As a largely volunteer-run organization with its roots in the United Methodist Church, we provide free high-quality immigration legal services to the poorest of the poor.

When there’s a remedy, we apply it; when there’s no path to legalization we explain it; when there’s injustice, we expose it.

While our current immigration laws are convoluted and dysfunctional, the 287(g) agreement catapults our legal system to the point of actually harming people. No decent person approves of mistreating others, but for people like me, who have taken the name “Christian,” there is a stronger imperative.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells his followers that on the day he returns, one of the questions he will ask is whether we have been hospitable to “the stranger,” which is translated as “the immigrant.” If we have been unkind, inhumane, or inhospitable, even to the immigrant that we believed deserved kindness the least, it will be as if we did it to Jesus personally.

We hear the stories of why these immigrants have come to live with us. They have often escaped persecution and abuse, or arrived here as a result of human trafficking, or fled numbing poverty. These situations are not black and white, but many shades of gray. One thing is clear: the policy of 287(g) has become a perverted version of its original intent.

As Nashville celebrates yet another year of being named the “friendliest city,” our immigrant brothers and sisters tremble in fear of being singled out for a minor infraction that should be subject to a fine but could result in their family being torn apart.

As a Christian and an advocate for social justice, I pray that no more children will suffer the fear and pain that I witnessed in the eyes of that five year old. I pray that someday our community will affirm that while we must uphold the law, we must also uphold the values of human dignity and respect for family integrity.
Snider is chair of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that provides free immigration legal services, education and advocacy.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Tennessee Editorial Forum. 11/09