Welcome to Tennessee, white-hot nexus of the new American nativism. When Governor Phil Bredesen complained this summer that Tennesseans were being whipped into a "frenzy" over immigration, some took issue with the culprits he cited--opportunistic Republican candidates--but not a soul could challenge the accuracy of his description. From formerly homogenous factory towns in East Tennessee to the formerly biracial city of Memphis in the west, the topic of the day--the debate of the day--is how to handle Tennessee's transformation into a major "destination state" for immigrants.
The transformation commenced in the 1990s, when Tennessee's immigrant population shot up 278 percent. The backlash was muted until April 2001, when the state became the first to grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. The legislative battle over licenses sparked immigrant-rights activism across the state. It also stoked fears among many natives that the already-brisk migration into Tennessee might just keep picking up steam. "If you make yourself a welcome wagon for immigrants, you'll get plenty," says Donna Locke, head of Tennesseans for Immigration Control and Reform. "That's certainly what Tennessee did."
The groundswell of anti-immigrant sentiment first started to crest five months after the driver's license bill was passed, says David Lubell, director of TIRRC (Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition): "After September 11, that's when it all changed here. They started to talk about 'driver's licenses for terrorists.' Opinions really began to harden."
In the state legislature immigration-rights groups still usually have the upper hand. This year, they fended off nineteen of twenty "reform" bills, losing only a minor skirmish. Having a Democratic majority in the state House, which generally sticks together on immigration issues, certainly helps--as does the pro-immigration lobbying muscle of the state's Chambers of Commerce.
But on the campaign trail, especially this year, nativism rules. The big statewide race this year is to replace Bill Frist in the US Senate, and it features three Republican contenders who've spent much of the primary season honing their Wyatt Earp imitations. One of them, former State Representative Ed Bryant, got so carried away in May that he lit out for the Arizona border to help the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps splice together a fence. Not to be outdone, shoo-in Democratic nominee Harold Ford Jr., the whiz-kid Congressman with a generally moderate voting record on immigration issues, hit the airwaves in June with a startling new ad. "Every day over 5,700 miles of border stands unsecured," Ford's voice intones solemnly. "Every day almost 2,000 people enter America illegally. Every day hundreds of employers look the other way, handing out jobs that keep illegals coming. And every day the rest of us pay the price."
While politicians legitimize nativist arguments, the flames of bigotry are fanned in Tennessee by a plethora of sources--not only "mainstream" anti-immigration groups and websites like Harmon's and Locke's but ad hoc "concerned citizens" groups in small towns around the state. Fears of a Ku Klux Klan revival in East Tennessee have been stoked by large turnouts of Tennessee Klansmen at recent rallies of a newly invigorated KKK in nearby northern Alabama--and by two hate crimes that put Tennessee immigrants on notice last year. In one case, a former Klansman named Daniel Shertz was arrested for plotting to blow up buses carrying Hispanic immigrants from Tennessee to Florida. In the other, a Mexican grocery store in Maryville was torn up by five young white supremacists who scrawled swastikas, "SS," and "WP," for white power, on the front of the store as their calling card.
"Tennessee has a uniquely toxified mix when it comes to immigration," says Devin Burghart of the Center for New Community, which monitors the nativist movement and works to counter its message. The toxins don't just come from campaign rhetoric, and anti-immigration and hate groups--they also churn up through the media. In June the big Nashville daily, the Tennessean, rolled out the colorful story of Coopertown Mayor Danny Crosby, a modern-day Boss Hog who--among a stunning array of other alleged offenses--reportedly ordered his officers to target Hispanics for traffic tickets (whether or not they committed any violations). But the Crosby saga didn't stand a chance against the lurid tale of drunk-driving Mexican immigrant Gustavo Garcia Reyes, who after numerous previous convictions ran into and killed a white couple in Mount Juliet, the Nashville suburb where Theresa Harmon lives. For weeks his mug shot made regular appearances on front pages as the story flew around nativist websites nationwide and landed on Fox News. But nobody rode the story harder than Tennessee's most poisonous media personality.