"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."
Harmon's culture shock was part of what prompted her to co-found Tennesseans for Responsible Immigration Policies (TRIP), now the state's leading anti-immigration group, in 2001. But even if she sometimes sounds like a walking, talking cultural-backlash cliché, she doesn't exactly fit the mold. Harmon, who as a teenager cruised South Nashville with a big gold marijuana-leaf decal on the back of her Camaro ("it matched," she says), has always had a rebellious streak as wide as Tennessee. "Maybe I read too many mysteries as a child," she says. "I have to think out of the box." She fell in love with activism in 1999 when she partnered with the ACLU in a successful challenge to a new uniform policy at two of her children's public schools. "I don't know about you, but I see kids going to school in uniforms, and I'm seeing little Nazis heiling Hitler."
Harmon sees the same mindless conformity taking hold in America. "We've let George W. Bush do more damage than Bill Clinton and every President before him could have even thought about doing. It's all about corporations. They run this country, and they run this world. That's not a world I want to live in. But everybody just behaves like sheep." Including those who've supported the war in Iraq. "How many kids did we have killed over there today for no good reason?" she asks. "Two? Ten? Twenty? Get. Them. Out. Of. There." It all fits together for Harmon: opposing Bush, opposing corporatism and opposing immigration. "This whole influx happened because big business wants cheap labor," she says. "Just like that war is making corporations a lot of money. And Bush is doing all he can to help them."
As the temperature over immigration keeps rising, Harmon says she worries about the level of frustration she's hearing, more and more, from other nativists in Tennessee and around the country. "The most popular formula is, 'soap box, ballot box, ammo box.' They'll X out the first two, like those options are gone and all you can do is arm yourself and get ready. I'm looking at that going, phew! It's going to get ugly."