In the past couple of weeks — since President Donald Trump announced a sweeping executive order on immigration and refugee resettlement — staff at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition have been going nonstop. Whether it’s talking with teachers about making their students feel safe, or offering guidance to local politicians, or holding community calls to help guide immigrants and refugees, the group is constantly providing support to vulnerable Tennesseans and the people who want to help them.
“We're in our 14th year right now,” says Stephanie Teatro, co-director of TIRRC. “We started right when Tennessee was experiencing a huge growth in immigrant population. We still have a relatively small community. Five percent of Tennessee is foreign-born, but it's been the rate of growth that's really driven the conversation.”
TIRRC provides direct services — giving people information, making sure they know their rights, responding to deportations, connecting them to legal services to bring their families back — but community education is also a large part of TIRRC’s mission. Over the past 14 years, the organization has worked to quell anxieties and tensions around immigration and refugee resettlement, which Teatro says can be particularly difficult in communities that haven’t been exposed to either.
“I've been here for five years and have already seen that I think Tennesseans at their core are incredibly welcoming and hospitable and interested in their new neighbors,” Teatro says. “A lot of people just haven't had that kind of proximity — there are still many, many, many communities in Tennessee where people have not met an immigrant or a refugee.”
In December, TIRRC hosted people from all over the world in the country's largest conference on immigration. The group also works to create resources for ally communities, believing that everyone has a role to play welcoming new Americans.
“Part of that is making sure people are finding ways to take the anger that they feel and make sure their elected officials are hearing from it but also channel it to the really critical local work that we're going to need to do over the next few months and next few years,” Teatro says. “With that, we think that local communities, local governments specifically, have a lot of choices to make and a lot of options and a lot of opportunities to protect their constituents. Working with local governments across the state will be a huge priority for us.”
TIRRC operates under the idea that most officials just want their city to run well and that if communities can break through the divisive conversations, officials often make fair policy decisions, Teatro says. TIRRC doesn’t believe using local resources on federal immigrant is appropriate, and is hoping local officials hold to that, despite the executive order.
In light of said order, TIRRC says it has two goals: safety and empowerment. While the number one goal is keeping vulnerable communities safe, the other piece of that is building power in those communities — especially in a state that has led the country in anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim policies, and really anti-immigrant movements.
“Our work is really about engaging new immigrant and refugee communities with a vision of ensuring that they have all the tools they need to be powerfully engaged in their new community, as well as engaging what we call receiving community members, or US-born Tennesseans to help them process the demographic shifts, help them understand what it means for their community, and also to make sure that our policies and institutions and laws reflect a more multicultural community,” Teatro says.
Photo: Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition