Op-Ed: Crackdown shakes up a whole community

Middle Tennessee is destructively divided in its halting entry into the world community. Two recent events — the immigrant roundup by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Springfield, and the mosque burning in Columbia — highlight a hateful rejection of immigrants by some members of our globalizing community.

These events also highlight a community embrace of newcomers by other Middle Tennesseans who welcome, seek to understand, serve and advocate on behalf of immigrants. Ignorance, fear and hatred of newcomers must be challenged at every turn with enlightened public dialogue, sound social planning and effective law enforcement, lest our community divide and marginalize natives and immigrants alike.

The abrupt mass exodus of 1,000 Hispanic Springfield, Tenn., residents earlier this year shook Robertson County. Last December, ICE swept through Robertson County, arresting suspected undocumented factory workers employed by a local manufacturer. ICE also arrested suspected purveyors of fake IDs, and the manufacturer, a major local-area employer of 3,500 workers, began firing undocumented factory workers.

Fearful of the roundup, Robertson County Hispanics have subsequently emigrated in droves, depleting some schools of students, churches of congregants, rental houses of tenants and businesses of customers. In this county economy in which over 70 percent of the labor force is employed in manufacturing, retail, health and social services, and accommodations and food services, this vigorous rejection of immigrants rocked the basic foundation of this local community.

A few weeks later, as I stood silently at the community vigil watching the immigrant Muslim congregants praying at the charred remains of their storefront mosque in Columbia, I struggled to comprehend the hatred that led the alleged, white-supremacist arsonists to torch the mosque to the ground. I left the vigil with no new insights about the causes of inhumane acts, other than the reminder that social conflict often arises in eras like our present one in which mounting immigration coincides with rapidly diminishing economic opportunity for middle-class and working people.

I also left the vigil reaffirmed by a collective resolve to unify our community. The program speakers and audience consisted of diverse Middle Tennesseans — representatives of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities, civil libertarians and civil rights activists, organized labor, business, students, a local commune, college professors, local government, social service providers, parents and their children and free-spirit musicians.

Social conflict arises in Middle Tennessee as our region enters the world community and the nation transitions from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy based in services. Abrupt and violent rejection of immigrants will continue to diminish, not improve, economic opportunities. Rather, a complete integration of immigrants and natives into our society requires a compassionate embrace of the world community, careful social planning, and job training and employment services for the knowledge economy.

Dan Cornfield is the director of the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies and professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.

This op-ed originally ran in The Tennessean on March 5, 2008.

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