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VOL. 40 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 10, 2016

Soto shrugs off ‘snub’ by state lawmakers

By Sam Stockard | Correspondent

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Conexión Américas Executive Director Renata Soto doesn’t dwell on the state Senate’s rejection of a resolution honoring her as chair of the National Council of La Raza.

“I forgot about that already,” Soto says, laughing in a recent interview.

Instead, she wants Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell to show “more courageous leadership” on matters important to refugees and immigrants, legislation such as allowing immigrant teens to pay in-state tuition at Tennessee colleges and another measure to sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program, which could freeze refugee movement to Tennessee.

The words of the governor and House speaker matter, Soto adds, explaining, “I wish that they would be more visible and more vocal about speaking (on) why some of these proposals and policies just don’t take our state forward.”

Sponsored by Republican state Rep. Mark White of Memphis in the House, the tuition equality bill would have allowed students without a green card or visa to qualify for deferred status through the federal government and become eligible to pay in-state tuition. To qualify, they would have had to meet several other requirements such as living in the United States for five straight years and graduating from a Tennessee high school.

The bill passed the Senate 21-12 in 2015 but fell short in the House 49-47, when two Democrats were absent at session’s end. White didn’t bring the bill to a floor vote in the House this year, saying he didn’t have enough support.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, a partner of Conexión Américas housed at Casa Azafran on Nolensville Road, will continue to lead the lobbying efforts for tuition equality in 2017. Soto says she hopes legislators will adopt a new mind-set.

“Not being an election year, maybe more people are more eager to just be more open-minded and courageous and just do what is right, something that will make a difference in the life of people directly, that will affect people directly in their capacity to say, ‘Can I go to college or not?’” Soto says.

Some state lawmakers have shifted their ire from Latino immigrants to Muslims over the years. During the most recent session legislation targeted refugees after an ISIS bombing in Brussels lit paranoia over the potential of terrorists infiltrating Syrian refugee camps.

Ultimately, the Legislature passed a resolution requiring the state to sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program, which is run by Catholic Charities, ostensibly to stop refugees from settling in Tennessee.

Gov. Haslam allowed the measure to take effect without his signature, deferring to the state attorney general on whether to sue the federal government or allow the Legislature to hire outside counsel for legal action. The governor has raised constitutional questions about such action, saying the federal government controls refugee resettlement.

If Attorney General Herb Slatery determines the Legislature can file suit using an outside firm, the General Assembly is likely to hire Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, which has offered to represent the state.

Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition calls the law firm “extremist and anti-Muslim.”

“While we are disappointed in Gov. Haslam’s decision not to veto the Legislature’s efforts to sue over refugee resettlement, we agree with his assessment that the resolution itself is constitutionally suspect and that Legislature has overstepped its authority,” says Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of TIRRC.

The agency predicts the lawsuit will fail in the courts but will lead to hostility against refugee families.

“By allowing the resolution to proceed and not addressing its hateful underpinnings, the governor is enabling dangerous anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment to persist. The passage of this resolution also provides political cover to those who seek to advance even more extreme policies or those who might act on their fear and bigotry,” Teatro explains.

Indeed, each time a terrorist bomb erupts or an immigrant is involved in a terrible incident, Casa Azafran and the nonprofit agencies working there “feel the pain,” Soto says.

In that regard, “more courageous leadership” from the governor and House speaker would help, she says. The offices of Haslam and Harwell declined to answer questions regarding Soto’s statement.

As for the Senate’s decision not to honor her, she says, “It was not personal. That is symptomatic of people sometimes not knowing and not asking. The problem is not to know. The problem occurs if you don’t ask or do some basic research. So, certainly for us that was just a little glimpse of the fights that we are engaged in at the state level and at the local level.”

The resolution sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville received nine in favor, six no votes and 12 present but abstaining. Six members didn’t vote at all.

The measure passed 66-10 in the House but only after its sponsor, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, worked the floor to push it to a successful vote.

Soto’s work on behalf of new Americans and the Latino community through Conexión Américas, Casa Azafran and La Raza wasn’t “warmly received” by most in the 33-member Senate, Yarbro says, noting, “I think it got caught up in Donald Trump-era politics.”

Republican Sens. Frank Niceley of Strawberry Plains and Jim Tracy of Shelbyville say they opposed the resolution because they consider National Council of La Raza “radical” or “violent.”

“Nothing against the lady. I’m sure she’s a fine lady and doing good work. But, she oughtn’t be associated with a group we need to keep an eye on,” Niceley says.

While some consider La Raza a separatist organization bent on taking back New Mexico, Arizona and California, it is typically considered the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group, one seeking immigration reform and a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living and working in America.

Soto believes the nation’s immigration system is “broken,” thus the need for Casa Azafran’s services to meet the needs of immigrants at every level.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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