“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.”
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.
Late this April, in an old factory complex converted into swank suburban shopping digs in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, more than 1,000 Tennesseans came out to cheer their hero, 99.7-FM drive-home-time host Phil Valentine. The son of a former Democratic Congressman in North Carolina, Valentine is a leading voice–and instigator–of Tennessee’s nativist backlash. “Wake up and smell the tacos,” Valentine likes to say, flaunting his political incorrectness. His website recently featured a full-color image of the Statue of Liberty wearing a sombrero, with a huge black mustache pasted on, a jar of salsa instead of a flame and a bottle of Patron cradled in her lower hand. Liberty rests on a tottering foundation of Chicklets, Tostitos and a Taco Bell sign.
All in all, a lot like the “joke” that slipped out of Valentine’s mouth at his rally in Franklin, where three Republican state legislators joined him on stage. Susan Tully, field director of FAIR (the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform), was complaining about the Border Patrol’s “catch and release” policy, saying that illegal immigrants were returned the first time they were caught, the second time, the third time…all the way to seven times. And what, Tully asked rhetorically, do we do the eighth time? “Shoot ’em!” Valentine interjected. The surburbanites roared their approval.
Two months later, in his nondescript studio on Music Circle, I ask about his incendiary comment. “I just said that as an ice-breaker and as a joke,” he says. “I am not a racist. I’m not advocating seriously that we shoot anybody. It’s just the frustration level.”
The frustration level among Tennessee nativists began to reach fever pitch this spring. On March 29 more than 10,000 Hispanic immigrants marched in the largest protest in Nashville history; there were smaller but impressive marches in several other towns and cities across the state. Then came the “Day Without Immigrants” boycott on May 1, when an estimated 10,000 Hispanics in Tennessee took part. Valentine organized a counterboycott with Theresa Harmon’s group, TRIP, targeting businesses that shut down for the day. “I’ve talked to people who said that before the protests they were sitting on the sidelines,” Valentine says, “but now they are incensed. They see that these people are carrying Mexican flags, they don’t speak English–they are in your face. People are more attuned to what the problem is.”
Valentine’s show dishes up a full menu of problems: immigrant diseases, “terrorist gangs” and, of course, illegal killers. “If these people were to get vetted like everybody else, we would get rid of the Gustavo Garcia Reyeses before they come over the border,” he says. “That particular case has really put a face on the immigration debate like nothing else.” That’s partly because of Valentine’s efforts. The murder in Mount Juliet gave him a perfect opportunity to alert his listeners to a purported wave of violent crime committed by illegal immigrants in Tennessee and nationwide. “I have heard that from thirteen to twenty-five people a day are being killed by illegal immigrants,” he tells me. (He’s a little sketchy on the source.)
But does Valentine believe the biggest nativist myth of all, that there’s a reconquista afoot? “Oh, absolutely,” he says. “Not with all of them, but with many of them. I think there’s a plan to move Hispanics into the Southwest and vote it back to Mexico. I think there’s a big plan to do that. They think that the territory was taken illegally from them in the Mexican-American War. That’s where this reconquista thing comes from. They are nuts. This is the United States of America. We can’t change that!”
Nor should we have to, Valentine says. “A lot of these people who are illegal want to come and plant their culture inside of ours,” he says. “We’re having to, now, speak Spanish, and try to understand them. We’ve never had to understand anybody.”
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.”
It’s easy to chalk up the nativist frenzy in Tennessee entirely to the usual suspects: gut-level racism, bigotry, ignorance, NIMBYism, right-wing radio hosts. But what’s eating Tennesseans, and hundreds of thousands of other Middle American nativists, is also something deeper, subtler–and likely to outlast the current debates over immigration policy. “This is not just about immigrants and immigration,” says Devin Burghart. “It’s something much greater–the nexus of race, national identity, who we are and who we want to be.”
You can hear it in Theresa Harmon’s worries about corporate fascism. You can hear it from Tennessee’s other leading anti-immigration activist, Donna Locke, whose quality-of-life concerns are larger than NIMBYism. Locke, who says, “I consider myself a liberal,” once agitated for “all the usual late ’60s and early ’70s causes.” The issue that stuck with her into adulthood was overpopulation and what it means for the human environment. “I’ve always felt that America could set an example for the rest of the world by dealing sensibly with population growth,” she says. “The more crowded it gets, the cheaper life becomes, and the easier it becomes to exploit people. Individuality dies, and with it dies a lot of what makes us ethical and moral human beings. I think it will be a disaster for the whole world if America loses that. And we are losing it. You can see it happening in Tennessee.”
You can hear those broader anxieties, in very different terms, from Carol Swain. A black conservative who studies white nationalism and teaches at Vanderbilt University, Swain believes that by “not thinking deeply about our immigration policies, we have created the conditions for long-term racial unrest.” As the day when white Americans constitute a minority of the population grows nearer, Swain predicts, “white people will increasingly see themselves as under attack. And it makes sense. If I were white, I would be feeling a lot of fear and uncertainty. I’d want to talk about it openly, too. But you can’t talk about it. That’s a big reason the lure of white nationalism is strong right now. As we dance around the real issues, ordinary people will find answers where they can.”
When I ask Swain why she is an immigration restrictionist herself, she ponders a while, then puts a new spin on the deep-seated frustrations that simmer beneath the surface of the new nativism. “I’d feel better about it if I believed in this country,” she says. “When I see how poor black and white people are treated–and have been treated–I can’t hold out any hope that millions of working-poor Hispanic people are going to receive better treatment. Things are not fluid in America. The system is not fair. Immigrants will learn that after a while. The American Dream promises a lot, but delivers very little.”
“Now, you be careful,” the director of Tennessee’s Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is telling me over the phone. “Don’t drive too fast. Take your time. Be safe.”
I’m headed toward Jim Carter’s home and shooting range, twenty minutes south of Nashville in the booming suburb of Murfreesboro. Telltale signs of breakneck development whoosh by on either side of the highway: long swaths of denuded earth, ragged mounds of orangy dirt, Hispanic workers climbing and hammering. Carter lives out beyond the new subdivisions, on ten woody acres ringed by an electronic security fence. He waves me through the front gate and points me, aircraft carrier-style, to a spot on the front lawn where my rental car can sit in the shade. After introducing one of his Minuteman “coordinators,” a hulking young carpenter named Ryan Kerr, Carter leads us into the comfy house he built, “foundation up,” after retiring from his job painting commercial aircraft. As we sit down on his glassed-in back porch, Carter fetches me a cold bottle of water. I’m beginning to wonder what such a gentle soul is doing leading a Minuteman group. Until a few minutes later, when Carter leans forward, gazes laserlike through his yellow shooting lenses and declares: “We have some people already who are like kindling. We have to be the spark. We’re gonna get the fire roaring. People are gonna have a bonfire.”
Carter, a Vietnam vet with a white beard and rosy complexion, started sparking his Minuteman chapter in February. He now has “over eighty” volunteers signed up. It’s hard work, though. “I probably get thirty, forty e-mails each and every day with people wanting information,” says Carter. “My wife complains because sometimes I have to work from 6 o’clock in the morning until I can’t see anymore, have to turn the headlights on the lawn mower.”
Why does he do it? When I ask the question, Carter turns to Kerr–as if to say, there’s your reason. Until recently, Kerr ran his own framing business. He says he did well until he refused to join his peers in hiring illegal immigrants and slashing wages. “By trying to be legit, I was losing twelve to fifteen hundred a house as I was framing. I had fifteen people working for me, three crews. By being stubborn, I ran my business into the dirt. If I’d hired illegal immigrants, I’d be living high on the hog right now.”
Carter says that much of the Minuteman membership, so far, consists of white folks–and two black men–who’ve had similar struggles. Now they’re hatching plans to confront local construction firms that have “gone brown.” “We’ll pick our places, inform the owners of our intentions, and then we’ll start marching on them,” Kerr says. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. If we show up with eighty or ninety people and the Daily News Journal, we’re probably going to stop this. Within a month, we’ll get rid of all of them. They’re going to know the heat is coming.”
The other goal, Carter says, is to recruit enough members “to have a small group on the border, fifty-two weeks out of the year.” He and Kerr both plan to be part of the MCDC’s next Border Watch month, in October. Carter will surely not lack for ammunition. At the immigrant-rights march in Nashville this spring, when he was accompanied by about twenty-five other counterprotesters, “I had five guns on me. I had over 150 extra rounds of ammo just in case. I didn’t know what was going to happen, or who was going to be there.”
Kerr is resigning his membership on the county’s Republican Party executive committee now that he’s a Minuteman leader. “What I’m doing now is going to upset a lot of people who put me forth” in the GOP, he says. “I’ve been a contractor here for twelve years. I know these people. And they know me, and know that I’m a 250-pound state wrestler. They have that in the back of their heads. My goal is to have twenty contractors up in my face. If I don’t have twenty, I’m not making enough noise.”
“The only time we will become violent is in self-defense,” Carter interjects.
“Yeah, well, they’re going to come after me. There’s going to be some upset people who are affected by this. My thing is, you make the first move and there’s witnesses, and we’ll take care of it from there.” A five-beat pause. “But let’s hope it won’t come to that. Calm. Positive attitude. Restraint.” Kerr says it like a mantra he’s trying to learn–so much so that it makes us all laugh. Until Carter speaks up.
“If it gets too violent, I still got six acres out on Walter Hill,” he says, referring to a plot of land he owns in the country. “I’ll take my tent out there, take my long guns with me, put up my tent and stay out there.”
“If they come to shoot you, they’ll have to hit me first.”
“Well, if they shoot through you they’ll hit me, ’cause I’ll be right there with you.”