“When I tell you that the area where I grew up now resembles Tijuana more than the US–well, hang on, you’re about to see what I mean,” says Theresa Harmon. Tennessee’s most vociferous anti-immigration organizer has just picked me up, straight from work at a local construction firm, in her red 1986 Mercury Cougar–a “kicker,” she calls it fondly, apologizing for the lack of air-conditioning. “Bless your heart–I’m used to the heat,” she says, talking her usual mile a minute as she puffs a Misty long and noses into rush-hour traffic, headed for the South Nashville neighborhood where she grew up. “I mean, who would have ever thought Nashville would be an illegal alien magnet?” she says. “Nashville!”
In fact, the country-music capital has rapidly morphed into what one writer dubbed “a new Ellis Island,” the unlikely symbol of America’s biggest refugee and immigrant resettlement since the Industrial Revolution. For more than a decade now, most immigrants have been bypassing traditional urban destinations in favor of Middle American towns and cities where jobs are abundant and unemployment is scant. Music City has ranked first among US cities since 1990 in immigration growth, and now has the largest community of Kurdish refugees in the United States. Like the rest of Tennessee, Nashville also ranks high as a destination for undocumented Hispanics–and that’s the part that rankles Harmon. “The Kurds are the nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” she says. “A lot like the Hispanic folk we’ve had here for a long time.”
Not the new ones. “Sadly, I’ve gotten to where I can look at a row of houses now and say, ‘They’re legal–they’re illegal.’ Simply because the ones that are legal tend to have that pride of place. The illegals? They don’t give a rat’s hind end about fitting in or being a US citizen. They’re here because they want money, and that’s it. They brought their chickens-in-the-yard culture over here with them. You see ten cars parked in the front yard, where you used to see flower beds.”
Harmon has known some of those flower beds for decades. “My neighborhood is gone,” she declares, steering down a winding hill through her old haunts. “I can’t read the signs because I don’t speak Spanish–in my native country!” As we hang a right onto the heavily trafficked business artery of Murfreesboro Road, Harmon starts pointing out evidence right and left. “As you see, everything for blocks is either a check-cashing place, a PayDay Loan or something Mexican. I don’t know what the deal is with that one,” she says, aiming a burgundy fingernail at a DryCleanersUSA sign, festooned in Stars and Stripes, that has been hung upside down.
“I can tell you what was in every one of these buildings until about five years ago,” she says. “Some of them have been here since I was a child. Right there was my dentist’s office,” she says, pointing to a Western Union sign. “Now if it’s not for rent, it’s got a Mexican sign on it.”