Immigrant Nation

The city known for exporting its culture comes to grips with a new generation of outside influences.



The girl spoke almost no English.

Refugees are survivors, though, and she felt determined to learn as much and as quickly as she could about her new home, beginning with her first day at Kingsbury in Berclair.

She approached the other students with the friendliness and warmth that she would have back home in Sudan. These kids didn't look so different from the kids at home, even if none of them wore braids as she did, or sported the same tribal tattoos. She smiled at another girl in the hallway. The other girl said something to her, some sort of greeting, she thought. So she repeated that greeting to other kids as she smiled and nodded her way through the halls.

"F*ck you," she told them.

The story illustrates what many immigrants in Memphis — and elsewhere around the country — encounter as they try to build a life in a new place, and learn a new language and customs. Misunderstandings are only the beginning. Immigrants encounter challenges in all facets of life. They must navigate a complex legal system, recognize scam artists posing as friends, see old rivals as allies, and make counterintuitive decisions about personal business.

For those of us who have been here for a generation or more, our prevailing opinions about multiculturalism tend to sound like either, "diversity is important to our city," or, "damn illegals are a drain on the system." The issue is more complicated than either cliché suggests. Now Memphis, a city known for exporting its culture abroad, finds itself at ground zero of a multicultural population explosion.

Quick changes have followed the influx of immigrants here, and complicated what was, not long ago, a black-and-white issue.

The American media usually pigeonhole immigrants into a few not-so-desirable categories. They are the helpless, pitiful, "huddled masses" of Emma Lazarus. They cut lawns, wash dishes, and struggle with the language. They slip through the cracks of a system they can't comprehend, but that once seemed to give hope. Whatever they achieve happens against all odds. They make for compelling subject matter of what film critic Manohla Dargis calls "victim documentaries." But the immigrant story in Memphis includes more than victims. In a time when many Americans feel that the country has lost its way, new arrivals embrace democracy and refresh us on what it's all about.

Culture Clash

Gloria Fortas is white, Jewish, and Colombian — "a bad combination," she jokes. Fortas works in the editorial department of La Prensa Latina (The Latino Press), the region's leading bilingual newspaper.

"The Hispanic community in Memphis didn't exist when I arrived here 19 years ago," she recalls. "People looked at me like I was a Martian."

Having beaten the rush, Fortas recalls a simpler time in immigration legality. "In those days I didn't have to pay much, just fill out the paperwork, do it yourself, and get it over with," she says.

La Prensa reflects the immigrants' grasp of the tools of American democracy. Its fast growth reflects a more local trend.

La Prensa went into circulation in 1997. It printed 10,000 copies of its first issue, and distributed it mostly to Mexican taquerias and tiendas around the city. Now the weekly prints 37,000 copies distributed throughout the city, and into North Mississippi, the Arkansas Delta, and rural West Tennessee.

Immigrant population figures can be hard to track, especially with the prominence of undocumented Latinos. Estimates place the current Latino population in Memphis at 90,000 to 100,000. As this number grows, so does the responsibility of La Prensa to keep its community informed on its special issues.

Latinos from a variety of countries find that their shared immigrant experience often eliminates national and cultural differences. "We all get along. We're in a different country, so we try to get together as a whole Latin community, regardless of where you're from," says Alex Nino, sales manager at La Prensa.

While they may get along among themselves, some Latinos feel like targets for others. "[Criminals] know that illegal immigrants are not going to go to the police to report crime," Nino says. "They fear that they'll be deported. It's not true, but they still have that fear. Even if you're illegal, you still have rights. A crime is a crime."

"These things interconnect," explains Jose Velazquez, executive director of Latino Memphis, a nonprofit community service organization. "The issue of safety comes from access to financial services. Many of these individuals come from economies that have gone belly-up. The concept of putting your very hard-earned money in someone else's hands is hard to deal with. Federally insured banks are a foreign concept."

Whether because of cultural conditioning, or one's preference to live undocumented, both legal and illegal Latino immigrants prefer to be paid in cash on their jobs. "A significant number of Latinos are linked to the perception that we're walking around out there with thousands of dollars," says Velazquez.

Velazquez equates certain payment practices of immigrant employers with slavery. Without a contract or paper trail to verify employment agreements between workers and employers, "a significant number of individuals who work have their wages held back, or paid in part to hold on to them [to prevent their sudden departure]," Velazquez explains. "Their bosses then threaten them with deportation."

Latino immigrants hesitate to report these issues. Without payroll documents they have no recourse.

Living "off the books" is nothing unusual to scores of Latino immigrants, particularly from rural areas. They come from honor-bound cultures where handshakes and verbal agreements carry legal weight.

Shady landlords take advantage of this, and house immigrants without entering lease agreements. "Housing is so hard to deal with," explains Velazquez. "People are forced to pay more rent and live in third-world environ-ments. Even though there are laws, the assumption is that there's no one to help."

Landlords evict illegals for nonpayment, just as bosses withhold pay earned. "We have to convince people here to get something in writing," says Velazquez. "That's where the notarios come in. They have no legal power, but with that play on words, Latino people go to them expecting a lawyer."

The title notario in the Latin world is for someone who has a law degree. Something was lost, however, in the translation of notarios to the U.S. Namely, the legal qualifications. Here notary publics hang the notario shingle, and Latino immigrants turn to them for a variety of worthless legal assistance, including advocacy against bosses and landlords that rip them off, and help in immigration law cases.

No Notario

Attorney Jack Richbourg's recent career attests to the increase of immigrants in the Mid-South during the past decade. No notario, he practices with the city's highest profile immigration law firm, Siskind, Susser, and Bland. Richbourg became involved with immigration law 12 years ago.

"If you represent someone in a divorce, and do a really good job, someone hates you afterwards," he says. "But when you represent someone in an immigration case, they want to name their first-born child after you."

The word-of-mouth nature of immigrant commerce boosted Richbourg's clientele after his successful representation of a Mauritanian man in an asylum case. After that, the man introduced Richbourg "to his 5,000 best friends," Richbourg jokes.

The combination of available work and low cost of living makes the Mid-South an attractive destination. "One fellow will come and [find work in the community], and tell other immigrants to come to Memphis," Richbourg says. "That's why we have an Immigration Court here. There's a population that needed serving."

Manual labor is in demand here, and countries south of our border have plenty of hands to supply it. The system, however, grants visas to highly skilled workers first and unskilled workers last, representing an inversion of the real economic situation with foreign labor.

Richbourg quips that he, as a lawyer, would rate as a second-priority worker. The idea of importing more lawyers to this country before allowing more laborers should raise eyebrows. Companies can bring laborers into the country on work visas, but the cheaper alternative of employing undocumented workers often wins out.

"One of the problems we have is that most of the people that want to come over here don't have the education or the credentials to qualify for a visa," Richbourg says. "A lot of people are saying that the immigration system is broken, and I am one of them."

When Richbourg began practicing immigration law, a judge and court clerk flew in from Dallas to conduct hearings once a month on a card table in the Federal Building. They worked through a cardboard file box of cases. The file boxes swelled until 1998 when the Immigration Court of Memphis began, and hired Judge Charles Pazar full-time. A second judge, Lawrence Burman, has since been added to keep up with the demand.

The facility expanded to include two courtrooms in the Federal Building. The court heard 1,987 new cases in fiscal 2004. Last year the number of new cases ballooned to 2,865. The court's jurisdiction covers Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, and North Mississippi.

Immigration Court respondents — as defendants are known — either entered the country illegally, or stayed beyond the expiration of a temporary legal status, such as a work, travel, or student visa. Usually they come to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, which administers Immigration Court, via a legal infraction, or a raid of an employer.

Immigrants are less likely to understand their rights here, and the odds of them successfully representing themselves in court are slim.

Richbourg actively participates in the recently founded Immigrant Justice Program, coordinated by the Community Legal Center (CLC). The program makes the necessary connections between immigrants and attorneys. As long as the respondent meets certain financial guidelines, the CLC arranges their representation pro bono, with an attorney like Richbourg, and protects clients from scam artists.

The burden of proof is on the alien in immigration cases, and the stakes are high. Though the court hears a variety of cases in the complex realm of immigrant legal status, all aliens that enter the legal system face removal, or gain permanent legal residence. Citizenship is another issue entirely.

In a recent removal case in Immigration Court, a Mexican woman explained to the judge that her son had been accidentally shot in the head. Doctors told her that he would survive, but live as a vegetable. The boy, however, made a recovery that could only be called miraculous.

He regained his speech and the use of his body. But a large portion of his brain had been removed to save his life following the shooting, and he could not develop beyond kindergarten level. He required constant care.

The woman sat to the left of the judge at the front of the courtroom while the judge, the government attorney, and the woman's attorney discussed her fate. She spoke no English, and the court translator deciphered only direct questions for the woman, while the entirety of the most important conversation in her life took place around her.

The judge granted the woman permanent legal resident status, rather than deport her. The woman and her attorney made a clear case that her severely brain-damaged son would not receive the care he needed in Mexico.

Of course, not all cases are so cut and dried.

Richbourg hopes to even the score between undocumented workers and a system equipped to exploit their toil. "A lot of them are getting paid off the books, and under the table," he says. "When they're here, they're paying sales tax, property taxes. Every now and then you'll hear a story like the two guys who killed the state trooper [in Tipton County]. But you never read about the guys who are paying their bills on time and sending money back home. Ninety-nine percent are hard-working and glad to be here."

From Sudan to South Memphis

Ruth Lomo was born in 1970, and grew up in the rural village of Yei in Southern Sudan (near the borders of Kenya and Zaire), the daughter of Kakwa subsistence farmers. The Kakwa are Christian people, which puts them in a religious minority in Sudan — and in the middle of trouble.

Sudanese Muslims, whom Lomo refers to as "Arabs," captured her older sister and imprisoned her for three months in 1970. After her release, the sister vowed to help her family cross another of the gaps that cause problems between Sudanese, and paid for Lomo's education. Lomo went to high school in Juba, the country's capital, a luxury that most rural Sudanese never know.

Decades of civil war in Sudan have removed so many men from their homes that women have taken a greater community leadership role. After her schooling, Lomo returned home and joined the Women's Self-Help Committee in Yei.

Anti-government rebels took control of Yei in 1990, and Lomo and her family fled. Rebels persuaded her family to join the cause, and Lomo's brother still fights in the secessionist southern army. A relief group recruited Lomo to work in a refugee camp in Uganda from 1991 to 1995. She moved on to a Kenyan refugee camp until 2001, when United Nations aid workers referred her case to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.

There a person must prove that she would be persecuted on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social organization, or political opinions in her country of nationality.

Since Lomo and her family had been persecuted for their religious beliefs, forced from their homes, and then joined an anti-government movement, the U.S. Embassy confirmed her refugee status.

Not surprisingly, more refugees are resettled to the U.S. than any other country. Since Lomo expressed no preferences for her new home, she and her five children ended up in a place she had never heard of — Memphis, Tennessee.

A variety of public and private agencies intervene to help refugees settle in to their new communities. Catholic Charities works with Sudanese in Memphis.

"The frustrating thing is wondering where you will start from in a strange country," Lomo says. "I spoke some English, so I could communicate. Also, as a Christian, we had Sudanese going to First Evangelical Church, and the church sent a bus every Sunday to pick us up. It did not take long for me to make friends."

Lomo says that the Sudanese here rally around new refugees, and help ease the transition. Despite everyone's best efforts, though, problems arise.

Catholic Charities rented an apartment for Lomo and her family on Millbranch Road, near Winchester. Other Sudanese end up in Binghamton, a rundown black neighborhood where resettled refugees can afford the rent while getting established.

"When we got here, most of us were placed in neighborhoods where African Americans are drinking and doing drugs, and it scares us," Lomo says. "Africans think African Americans are very rough."

She explains that African-American children taunted her kids for their dark skin, and called them monkeys. She says that a family from Zaire refused to allow their children outdoors after a neighborhood gang stoned the refugee kids. Though Sudanese refugees have fled brutal civil war and economic despair, what they see in Memphis shocks them: gang warfare, drug and alcohol addiction, rampant unemployment, and homelessness, for starters.

Lomo viewed the state of impoverished African Americans in Memphis as a challenge for her own people: Not to rehabilitate African Americans, but to avoid the traps they've fallen into, as Lomo sees them. Lomo also witnessed many of the struggles of her fellow refugees — to learn a foreign language, foreign customs and laws, find steady work, and avoid temptation from drugs and alcohol.

Lomo drew on her experience in leadership roles, and gathered a dozen other refugee women. Together they would acclimate to American culture and learn the language, with a little help from a local woman.

A Hand Up

Cam Echols had had about enough of charity work in 2002.

"I thought, I could go to the private sector and make money. Then Ms. Ruth [Lomo] came along and started talking about self-reliance. That's what I'm here for."

Echols runs a community support program at the United Methodist Neighborhood Center at Walnut Grove Road and Tillman Street. Lomo and her refugee friends began to meet at the center.

"Our social services system gives handouts instead of a hand up," Echols says. "Ms. Ruth came along with her vision. She wants to empower her people and make them earn the little things that we take for granted, like deodorant and bars of soap. I was giving these things out to refugees and hurting her program."

Lomo raised the fundamental problem with welfare. "It cripples people to get a handout," she says. "If the government gives people checks every week, who's going to work?"

The program she started with those 12 women trying to learn the English language and the principles of self-reliance blossomed. Now 80 children study reading, algebra, chemistry, history, and other subjects as part of the International Community of Refugee Women and Children.

Students and volunteer tutors fill the center's classrooms and sprawl across floors in hallways. In one room, women refugees from Somalia, wrapped in traditional gowns, identify stop signs, question marks, and restroom markers on flashcards.

Tutors from area high schools volunteer and earn an impressive line on their college application personal statements: In my spare time, I tutor refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia in multiple subjects in a one-on-one setting.

Refugee children can matriculate through the program, and continue to augment their standard education with lessons in self-reliance that Lomo hopes will keep these new immigrants from repeating the fate of many non-whites in America.

Stay Tuned

Though immigration is reported on thoroughly at the national level, our city lies far from the frontlines. Hotly contested issues like border security have no bearing on life in the Bluff City. Still, the issue affects the city, and the story of immigrants here will continue to unfold, and shape the future of Memphis. While immigration might sound to some of us like a vague and distant news category — like "the war" or "the economy" — the human experiences deserve recognition.

"They're adding to our communities," Richbourg says. "They're not just taking away."

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