NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - Organizers of a national conference aimed at promoting the rights of immigrants to the United States had to make some dramatic adjustments to their agenda before the conference opened over the weekend in Nashville.
Attendees at this year's National Immigration Integration Conference were hoping to explore ways to promote the rights of immigrants and refugees and help them integrate into society. But that was before Donald Trump won the presidency.
Now, the advocates for immigrants find themselves on the defensive in facing Trump, who has been severely critical of current immigration policies.
A workshop on how more immigrants can qualify for health care under the Affordable Care Act was changed to “resiliency in Advocating for Immigrant Health in Hostile Environments.” And new sessions such as “The Organized Anti-Immigrant Movement: Who They Are, What They Want, and How We Can Push Back in Trump's America” are now on the agenda.
In the biggest assembly of its kind since Trump's election, the conference of more than 1,000 immigrants and refugee rights leaders on Monday listened to Tennessee city mayors, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, and singer Emmylou Harris offer guidance in the new Trump age.
“We absolutely had to do a lot of post-election pivots for this conference,” said Stephanie Teatro, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition co-executive director, “not only to really meet sort of the moment and have the kind of conversations that immigrants rights advocates need and want to be having right now, but also because the policy landscape has fundamentally shifted.”
In his speech Monday, Ambassador of Mexico to the United States Carlos Sada didn't mention Trump, who has promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. Instead, Sada listed the economic benefits Mexico extends to the United States, and called for a “new language” to start new dialogue and reach compromises.
“We have always been stronger, safer and more successful when we have worked together,” Sada said.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was one of 18 mayors in larger metro areas who signed a letter to Trump urging him to maintain President Barack Obama's protections from deportation for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. With Trump's hard line on immigration during the campaign, fear remains that he could eliminate the executive move by Obama.
Barry called Nashville a new gateway city that 81 people a day move to. In 2000, less than 1 percent of Nashville residents were new Americans; now, Nashville is close to 16 percent of its population being foreign born, Barry said.
Emmylou Harris, a 13-time Grammy winner and Nashville native, said people need to break through the noise and negativity brought to the forefront by the election. Harris has been touring with several other artists to help refugees through the Jesuit Refugee Service.
“Who is living in our country now, they need to know about us, we need to know about them, and then stop talking about ‘us’ and 'them,’ ” Harris said in an interview. “Because we do share this extraordinary country.”
Teatro said Trump's election has heightened interest in immigrant rights, through new volunteers, better coordination between advocacy groups and a big crowd for the conference, which began this weekend.
“You can see that the sentiment is not gloomy or bleak here,” Teatro said. “I think people are here to work. I think a lot of our strategies are giving people really concrete tools to take back to their communities. And I think we can see that we're going to emerge from this stronger for that.”