Phil Valentine gets on Rick Casares's very last nerve. "I don't like to say this about anybody," Casares says, "but he's just a racist." Casares has been working only six months as outreach coordinator for TIRRC, the statewide immigration-rights group, and he knows he needs to be more politic when talking to reporters. But he feels this in his bones. "For me, it's personal," he says. "My parents were illegal immigrants from Mexico." His father, among other accomplishments, rose to become mayor pro tem in the predominantly white town of Rosemeade, California. Still, Casares says, it was ugly at times. But the discrimination he saw his parents face "pales to what immigrants face today in this climate of poisonous rhetoric."
Casares's job is to detoxify. He's heading a new Welcoming Tennessee Initiative, inspired by a successful effort in Iowa. "We're trying to highlight what we have in common, and get past the myths and stereotypes that diminish immigrants' worth," he says. The myth-busting message will be spread around the state by regional volunteers trained to address civil and community groups, churches, minority and business groups. Welcoming Tennessee has also launched a billboard campaign appealing directly to native Tennesseans' values. The first shows two grinning children and quotes the Book of Matthew: "I was a stranger, and you welcomed me." The second is a collage of images of immigrants throughout US history; the message is, "Welcome the Immigrant You Once Were."
Casares knows that welcoming immigrants is not exactly at the top of most Tennesseans' agendas these days. "Last year we turned back gay marriage," he says. "This year we're turning back the brown horde."
"The facts just bounce off people," says Casares's TIRRC colleague Stephen Fotopulos. "The way people get their news now, there's no way to counter the image of a white, native-born Tennessee family killed by an illegal immigrant. It is so much harder to quantify, to get your mind around, all the benefits that would go away if these same people weren't here."
It's especially hard when people are yelling at you because you're standing up for "illegals." Like Casares, Fotopulos is a military veteran who says his training from hazardous-duty zones now serves him well. "I'm still surprised at the things people will say," he says, reading from a recent e-mail message: "'You are a lying, deceitful, rotten traitor and an enemy to every American for betraying your country.... If you like illegal aliens so much, why don't you go south of the border, live there and stay there? And take all the other turd-lovers and criminal illegal alien lawbreaking filth with you. You belong with the other inferior, substandard scum. You're not good enough to be an American.'"
While there's no doubt 2006 has already been a tumultuous year in Tennessee, Fotopulos says he's "not pessimistic at all. I'm constantly amazed at how we'll go out to a rally where people have these Phil Valentine talking points and are as certain as they can be. We start talking about it, and we usually end up at a reasonable place where we see that we really do want the same things. It's bad to have a system that doesn't work. It is. And there are people here who have very real cultural concerns, who see the life they've known being submerged. We can talk about that. But what truly changes people is human contact. In fifteen years everybody here will know Hispanics personally, and it just won't be so much of an issue."
In the meantime, Fotopulos sees the bright side. "What I really value about being in Tennessee right now," he says, "is that this is Middle America, and there's no winning this immigration debate without understanding what people here think."