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Immigration as an issue in Shelby County – Who’s listening?

More than a dozen local residents and community advocates gathered in the back of a quaint Summer Ave. restaurant last Friday evening. They’d come to hear from local leaders set to speak on issues surrounding immigration in Shelby County.

One of the attendees was Carmelita Hernandez, a local Mexican-American resident. For her, the topics to be discussed hit close to home. In 2015, her husband was deported to Mexico, leaving her alone to raise their four children.

“I needed to be here,” she said. “I’ve been doing this on my own. I am sending two kids to college and have two others still here in school, plus rent…it’s hard doing it by myself.”

Stories such as Hernandez’s were the primary topic of conversation as questions about deportation came up frequently throughout the night. The meeting was part of an immigration listening tour led by local activist, Alex Hensley.

State Sen. Lee Harris (D-TN), who is running for Shelby County Mayor, Shelby County Chief Deputy Floyd Bonner, who is on the ballot for Sheriff, and Michael Whaley, a local educator running for County Commission, all took questions from the guests.

The listening session happened amid a national discussion on the separation of families at the border; but the division hasn’t been reserved for immigrants who reside thousands of miles away. Last July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carried out a nationwide operation targeting unaccompanied minors who came into the country illegally as children.

During the raid, more than 80 immigrants were arrested in Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans combined. More pick-ups have happened since then. In April, Manual Duran, a local Memphis journalist was arrested while filming a protest. He is at risk of being deported.

“While families in our own communities are being separated and the Shelby County Sheriff’s office continues to cooperate with ICE, it is crucial that candidates hear from the community and are held accountable for their responses,” Hensley said regarding her reasoning for inviting local officials to the meeting.

During the session, Chief Deputy Bonner refuted the claim of joining forces with ICE, saying that the Shelby County Sheriff’s office does not hold immigrants for the federal agency and cooperates at a minimum.

“We do not go out and look for people,” Bonner said, adding that he and his deputies are considerate of families. “We are on the edge of what the federal government requires of us. We have to follow the law, but a lot of the law has to do with interpretation.”

Harris sought to explain how voting for the right elected officials could help in the fight for immigrants’ rights.

“The county mayor appoints the county attorney, so we want a mayor who shares the perspectives in this room.”

At the onset of the session, Harris expressed his intent for helping local immigrants when a resident emotionally pronounced that she just wanted to see what’s best for immigrants in Memphis.

“We want the same thing,” Harris replied.

Local educator Whaley, who is running for County Commissioner in District 5, tailored his responses to students, referencing the correlation between deportation and childhood trauma.

“A lot of people are now talking about trauma and how it affects kids and families once they’re separated, but we’ve got to do more than just talk about it.”

Hernandez, who also works as an education/parent advocate for Memphis Lift, has witnessed the effects of this trauma while assisting local families, and within her own after the deportation of her husband.

“The kids are traumatized,” she said. “They may be thinking that my dad was taken and now they’re wondering if they’ll see mom when they get home.”

The mother of four admitted that it’s been a constant struggle, but she’s received an outcry of support from her children’s schools after moving them from the district to smaller charter schools.

“When my husband got deported the people at my kids’ schools hugged them,” she said between tears. “It was like they said, ‘Your dad is not here, but we’re here.’”

Hernandez said she didn’t get any new answers from Friday night’s meeting but acknowledged that conversations between elected officials and the community are a start.

“Our local officials need to have the right information, but most of the questions have to be addressed at a state and national level.”

She also added that she believes most of the issues could be solved if there were more empathy.

“It all comes down to compassion. It seems like we’re all getting accustomed to seeing people being treated like this, and it shouldn’t be that way.”

Hernandez said she will continue the rigorous process to reunite her husband with their family, no matter how long it takes; but in the meantime, she will continue advocating to help immigrant families in Shelby County.

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