Tuesday, July 16, 2024

In Tennessee, Immigrants Use the Justice System to Fight Discrimination

For Enrique Bautista, a turning point came last year at a Franklin, Tennessee driver’s license office. A worker took his Tennessee issued ID and U.S. government issued green card and disappeared for twenty minutes. When she came back, she said she’d be keeping the documents on suspicion they were fake. Bautista, a legal permanent resident, was stunned. He’d never been in trouble with the law. He’d raised five children in the United States, working hard here for decades.

Last month, he sued the Tennessee Department of Safety and joined the ranks of Tennessee Latinos filing civil rights lawsuits against state and local governments. They’re claiming policies and actions are directly aimed at making Tennessee a less attractive place to settle, even for legal immigrants.

Recently, the driver’s license office sent a letter acknowledging Bautista’s documents were legal. It asked him to come pick them up.

“Thomas Jefferson said all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain infallible rights,” said immigration attorney Elliott Ozment, who is representing Bautista. “The reality is that all people who are present in this country, either legally or undocumented, have certain fundamental rights.”

There could be more to come. Ozment said measures such as the state’s new Illegal Alien Employment Act and Davidson County’s 287(g) program, which gives local deputies limited authority to enforce federal immigration law, are driving ordinary immigrants to denounce acts of discrimination and racism.

Three major cases have been filed this year alone including Bautista’s, one against the city of Nashville over a proposed English-only amendment, and one against the governor and Davidson County Clerk’s Office over marriage licenses. This last lawsuit was filed by local Attorney, Vanessa Saenz.

For Saenz, a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, the turning point was a series of phone calls from people looking for help but unwilling to formally protest their inability to obtain a Tennessee marriage license. When the same thing happened to Saenz, who is engaged to an immigrant, she sued Governor Phil Bredesen and Davidson County Clerk John Arriola. She and her fiancé were denied a marriage license when he couldn’t produce a Social Security card. She hired one of Nashville’s best-known civil rights lawyers, George Barrett, and filed suit, claiming the policy was affecting the ability of Tennessee residents to exercise a constitutionally protected right.

The case came to an end in May after the attorney general essentially agreed with Saenz in court documents. He then instructed every county clerk in the state to stop denying marriage licenses to those who could not provide Social Security cards.

The injustices being reported in Tennessee are indeed not isolated cases. Many Latinos all over the United States have reported increases in discrimination. The lack of federal immigration policy has led many states such to take matters into their own hands, and the result has been laws that many times lead to instances of unfairness and inequity towards all immigrants. The hope remains that the new President , the new Homeland Security Department and the new congress will take action to address the myriad of direct and indirect immigration issues many face. In the meantime, immigrants should continue to stand up against the injustice, as Saenz stated, “This is our civil rights movement, what the blacks did in the ’60s, I guess we are going to do in the 2000s.”

The Tenessean.com