Like most politicians these days, Juan Borges has staked out a hard-line, conservative stance on immigration. If elected as a Republican to the state House in November, he says he’ll push for an English-only driver’s license exam, punish businesses that hire illegal immigrants and authorize local cops to uphold federal immigration laws. As it is, police aren’t permitted to punish immigrants for being illegal.
Sounds like almost any candidate running for office here in Middle Tennessee. Problem is, Borges isn’t just any candidate. He’s one of two officers appointed by Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas to run El Protector, a program designed to improve relations between the cop shop and Nashville’s blossoming immigrant community, legal or otherwise.
Borges’ job as El Protector is to build relationships between the police and communities of sometimes isolated and vulnerable people. But his campaign rhetoric has put him at odds with the very people he’s supposed to be El Protector-ing. And the irony’s not lost on Nashville’s immigrants.
Last March, a prominent Latino business owner was beaten to death in his home. The community was nervous. This wasn’t the first time that an immigrant business had been targeted. They wanted to reach out to the police for both reassurance and preventative action. So Yuri Cunza, the president of the Nashville Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Salvador Guzman, who owns one of Tennessee’s largest Spanish-language radio stations, organized a meeting at an Antioch banquet hall. They invited Borges and Chief Serpas to attend.
The chief couldn’t make it, but Borges and some of his local captains were there. According to some in the community who were in attendance that night, Borges’ behavior was less than gracious. He refused to speak Spanish to the assembled business owners, even though many of them were not fully proficient in English.
“They would raise their hands and ask him to speak Spanish,” Guzman says. “ ‘We cannot understand you,’ they said. Borges’ answer was ‘I can’t do both languages.’ ”
Most galling, say those who were in attendance, was that Borges was happy to translate questions for a television news reporter, who wanted to interview some of the Spanish-speaking attendees.
“I don’t know why,” Guzman says. “She was young and good-looking, though.”
Borges, who was born in Puerto Rico, is not a native English speaker but says that he learned quickly. “I learned how to write it, read it and speak it in three months.”
He says he didn’t want the meeting to be conducted in Spanish because the captains that he’d brought along were “English only” and he felt that it would be unfair to them. It’s also his position that if you are in the U.S., “you can’t be demanding for other people to speak their language (sic).”
True as that is, it remains ironic for the liaison to the immigrant community to say such things out loud or on the campaign trail.
Borges also says that the meeting was a setup designed “just to bash me and the chief.” He claims that personal differences between himself, Cunza and Guzman, have driven the two business owners to take every opportunity to make him look bad. According to Borges, the pair only notified him and Serpas of the meeting the day before. He says that they knew the chief wouldn’t be able to make it and would therefore look bad.
“It’s sad that Yuri and Salvador can’t separate their personal and professional life.”
Chief Serpas declined to comment for this article.
Guzman denies that he has it out for anyone and fully supports the chief’s effort to reach out to the immigrant community. Guzman and others say that Serpas has been open to meeting with community leaders and hearing their concerns. Borges, they insist, is the obstructionist.
On March 28, about two dozen Latino business leaders met with Serpas, Borges and other police officers at the Criminal Justice Center. According to some who were in attendance, the purpose of the meeting was to talk about issues in the community and possibly set up a Latino crime watch or 24-hour hotline to report neighborhood drug dealers.
Elliot Ozment, a prominent immigration attorney who was in attendance that day, says all of the police officers and the chief were “very attentive, very nice, friendly and receptive to the business leaders’ comments.”
“But,” the lawyer says, “not Borges.”
According to Ozment, “It only got contentious when Borges took the floor.” He “took control of the meeting and lashed out at the Hispanics who were present. He was very rude.”
So rude, in fact, that Serpas asked him to sit down and be quiet. “Chief Serpas told him, ‘Be quiet, don’t argue, let’s listen,’ ” Ozment remembers.
Borges says that the Latino business leaders called the meeting to make more personal attacks and complain about the poor job they think he’s done.
Not so, says Guzman. “We didn’t go there just to complain or ask for things. We were going to ask how we could help the police. I think that the idea of El Protector is excellent,” he says. “I’m sure that Serpas is trying to do the right thing; he’s just got the wrong guy in charge.”
On a tree-lined block of suburbia just off the McGavock Pike, Juan Borges trudges through the rain, looking for votes. Here, far from the roiling, multilingual neighborhood of immigrants that El Protector serves, Borges is making a door-to-door pilgrimage.
He speaks to the voters about his conservative principles—he has signed a Tennessee Eagle Forum pledge and has been endorsed by Tennessee Right to Life—and his contempt for career politicians. The voters are mostly older and white. They like candidate Borges. A retired couple even agree to put one of his signs on their lawn.
Many of these folks are on the same page with Borges when it comes to immigration, and that’s a good thing for him. After all, these people count. They’re voters.