Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero met Tuesday with representatives of about 20 organizations that serve or advocate for Knoxville’s immigrant communities and then proclaimed “a Day of Immigration Action,” a nationwide observance organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“Our country was born and prospered on the labor of immigrants, whether they came here voluntarily or not,” said Rogero, whose ancestors first came to the United States as indentured servants from the island of Menorca in 1768. “Over time the nationalities change, but the challenges remain the same. Every generation a new group comes and faces intolerance and bigotry.”
The event was motivated partly by concerns that recent federal policies, especially executive orders issued by President Donald Trump in January, have created a climate of fear that is detrimental to law enforcement. A wave of immigration roundups began in major cities across the country in March.
One executive order paved the way for this more aggressive pursuit of immigrants who entered the country illegally but have not committed crimes.
It also started the process for building a wall on the border with Mexico and declared an intent to cut off federal funds to cities (sometimes called “sanctuary cities”) that do not report undocumented immigrants to federal officials.
The executive order also states, “It is the policy of the executive branch to empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer in the interior of the United States to the maximum extent permitted by law.”
That opens the door for more local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration policy, but Knoxville is not pursuing that option.
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch stood behind Rogero nodding vigorously as Rogero said, “We are not required by law to be ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents. Our job is to keep our community safe, and we cannot do that if people are afraid of police.”
Although Knoxville Police do work with ICE, particularly on the pursuit of internet crimes against children, their duties are separate, Rogero emphasized. “We would join with other cities to work against any policies that would require us to be ICE agents,” she said.
Rausch said he has been made aware of situations since Trump’s inauguration when immigrants have been afraid to the call the police.
Yeni Martinez, 20, has seen that firsthand. She is attending Johnson University under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, created by former President Barack Obama to protect children brought to the U.S. illegally from deportation and allow them to attend college and work legally.
“I grew up knowing that if anything happened, don’t call police,” says Martinez, a Central High grad whose Honduran family has lived in Knoxville 14 years. Since Trump’s executive orders, “there has been a lot more fear,” she says. She wanted to attend an immigration walk downtown a few weeks ago, but didn’t because her family was so afraid she would be targeted by ICE agents.
Rausch said Knoxville Police are concerned only with finding and arresting the perpetrators of crimes. Although Trump has made statements that immigration and police officials have been unable to coordinate on arrests of criminals who are in the U.S. illegally, Rausch says he has not seen that problem in Knoxville.
Rausch added, “It is not our job to go round up people. We’ve got our hands full with an opioid epidemic.”
Rogero’s meeting provided an opportunity for experts and advocates to share information about the legal, educational, health, and other needs of Knoxville’s immigrants. Rogero said she learned that many children who are U.S. citizens, but whose families may not all be here legally, need to acquire the right documents to prove their citizenship.
Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition, says her message for Rogero is that cities to make sure schools, courts and hospitals are free from immigration enforcement so people don’t need to hide and suffer out of fear. Her coalition is fighting for in-state tuition for undocumented students and all state legislation that would limit what cities can do to help immigrants, such as a bill to prevent any Tennessee cities from becoming “sanctuary cities.”
“I think the mayor (Rogero) has taken an exceptional amount of leadership on this issue, and Knoxville could really lead the state,” Teatro said.
Rogero spoke emotionally of her interactions with foreign workers in California during the 1970s, including Filipino farm laborers who couldn’t earn enough money even after three decades to return home or bring their own families to the U.S.
The press conference was held in coordination with other mayors across the U.S., led by the mayors of Los Angeles, Providence, Anaheim, and Seattle, through the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed an immigration position statement last year that urged establishing a streamlined visa process and implementing an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Shortly after Trump issued his first order restricting the acceptance of refugees and banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked Trump to reconsider his order and added, “We will always be opposed to any discrimination based on race or religion and we believe the United States can protect its citizens while remaining a refuge for those seeking freedom and the opportunity for a better life through legal immigration.”
Trump issued another executive order a few days after his inauguration temporarily banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries and halting American acceptance of any refugees for three months. Enforcement of the order was halted by a judge, so the administration issued a revised version earlier this month that was also halted by a judge last week. Trump vowed to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
During the periods when those orders have been put on hold, Bridge Refugee Services has managed to relocate 16 refugee families to Knoxville, says executive director Drocella Mugorewera. The nonprofit helps refugees vetted and accepted by the federal government to settle in East Tennessee.
Despite the halt on the policies affecting refugees and travel, reports have continued to emerge across the country alleging detention and mistreatment of American citizens of Middle Eastern descent or with Arabic-sounding names, including the former longtime police chief of Greenville, N.C., detained in JFK airport last week.
Closer to home, Knoxville high school student Zubaidah Alizoti was detained in Turkey on Sunday as she attempted to return with her family from a pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Her mother, Sabrina Sadaf Siddiqi, posted a message of grief and frustration on Facebook: “My 17 year old, my kind, my courteous, my loved by many, my Tennessee born daughter was denied entry back to her country, my country, our country. In this new #America a citizen of our country can be unlawfully denied entry for no apparent reason other than border patrol would not clear her United States passport for entry. In this new #America my family, my patriotic, my community serving family can be denied entry back to our own homeland.”
It remains unclear why Alizoti was singled out, although Transportation Security Administration officials have blamed the problem on Turkish Airlines failing to provide the proper passenger information for her.
The Siddiqi family are prominent real estate investors and members of the Knoxville business community, as well as ambassadors for the local Annoor Mosque and donors to many local nonprofits.
Rogero saw Siddiqi’s Facebook post and contacted Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker as well as Congressman John Duncan. Overnight, Siddiqi posted that Duncan, Corker, and the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul have been trying to help the family clear up the problem and return. The situation brought home fears about federal discrimination and was met by outrage and sympathy on Facebook, with both distant strangers and Knoxville residents calling elected officials to seek help for Alizoti.
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