December 19, 2014
When President Barack Obama visited Casa Azafran in Nashville on Dec. 9 for a town hall discussion of his recent executive order on immigration, Renata Soto and Jose Gonzalez, founders of Conexion Americas, were there to greet him.
“We talked about our work and welcomed him to Nashville, and thanked him on behalf of the people who will be impacted by his executive action,” said Gonzalez, a professor at Belmont University who teaches entrepreneurship and finance, and is a member of the Budget Committee for the Diocese of Nashville’s Finance Board.
In planning the president’s visit, Gonzalez explained, the White House staff was looking for a place that could be a showcase for private-public partnerships and integrating immigrants into the community in an effective way. Nashville, Conexion Americas and Casa Azafran fit the bill.
Gonzalez, Soto and María Clara Mejía founded Conexion Americas in 2002 to address the challenges and opportunities presented by the growing number of Latino families moving to Nashville and Tennessee.
“No one was meeting the needs of the Spanish-speaking population,” said Gonzalez, a native of Mexico who was first introduced to Nashville as a camper at Camp Marymount. The goal of Conexion Americas was to help both immigrant families adjust to life in the United States and the broader community “understand who were all the people coming here, why they were coming, and how to interact with them,” Gonzalez explained. “The vision has expanded greatly from that initial stage.”
Today, Conexión Américas assists immigrants living in Nashville in a variety of ways, such as helping them to buy homes, start businesses, improve their conversational English, navigate systems in the community, learn their rights and responsibilities, help their children succeed in school, and others.
In 2012, Conexión Américas joined other non-profits to establish Casa Azafran as a place that offers services in education, legal, health care and the arts to immigrants, refugees and the community as a whole.
The president’s visit and his message about his executive order on immigration put a spotlight on Conexion Americas and Casa Azafran, Gonzalez said. “The publicity is good and great but we’re really more pleased with the fact, and appreciate the fact, that this is a story we’ve been telling for a decade … that immigrants are an asset to our community. … We were thrilled that a presidential visit puts that message front and center.”
On Nov. 20, the president announced his executive order. The key provisions would:
• Defer deportation for the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have lived in the country for at least five years.
• Expand the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allowed immigrants under age 30 who arrived as children to apply for deferred deportation. Under the order, the Deferred Action program will be open to immigrants older than 30 and more recent arrivals.
People who would qualify in either category could also receive work permits.
“We understand there are many people who disagree, certainly with the administration in general, and many people who disagree with the executive action,” Gonzalez said. “But when people understand the executive action ... how it will impact the families and the community, we find people turn around and are empathetic.”
The latest executive order could have the same positive impact for the entire community as the Deferred Action program, Gonzalez said. He knows many people who have benefited from Deferred Action, including a student who was able to go to college and pursue a career after enrolling in the program. “The difference was going to work with his dad in landscaping or going into a career with a large financial company,” Gonzalez said.
Another recipient he knows was able to get access to credit so she could pursue her dream of opening her own restaurant, Gonzalez added. As a business owner, she will be able to hire people and contribute to the economy, he added.
The new executive order will also help keep families together, Gonzalez said. “What is not right, what is not fair from a moral and economic perspective, is that families continue to be divided,” he said. If a father is deported after being pulled over for a broken taillight, the family loses its breadwinner and is left behind to face new, difficult challenges, Gonzalez said.
“This does not need to be a partisan issue,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a human dignity issue.”
About 4 million undocumented immigrants across the country could be eligible for the program, and as many as 40,000 in Tennessee.
The federal government will count on non-profit agencies like Conexion Americas and churches to help spread the word about the new program and help people apply, Gonzalez said.
The program is not expected to start accepting applications until the spring, he said, but some unscrupulous service providers are telling people they can expedite their application for a fee. As of now, the message to the immigrant community is that there is nothing that can be done yet, Gonzalez said.
While undocumented immigrants are excited about the program, some expressed concerns during the meeting with the president that the program could be rescinded by the next president who will be elected in 2016.
Obama said that’s possible, but unlikely, Gonzalez said. Once the country sees the program participants doing the right things, paying taxes and working hard, Obama told the town hall meeting, the next president would be foolish to rescind it, Gonzalez added.
Although the program will help, Gonzalez said, it won’t fix all the problems with the country’s immigration system. “This is a Band-Aid. This is not the solution. It only impacts a portion of all the undocumented families in the U.S. … It’s not a path to permanent residency.
“The only solution is for Congress to act,” he said. “The best outcome of this story is a year from now Congress will have acted and passed a bill that resembles the bill passed by the Senate last year. If this triggers Congress to act, that will be a good outcome.”