Mercedes Gonzalez was driving 48 in a 40 on the night of Sunday, May 15, when a Metro police officer pulled her over at Harding Place and Nolensville Pike. It was a week before the 18-year-old, who's been living in Nashville for seven years, would graduate from Overton High School.
When she couldn't produce a driver's license, the officer took her fingerprint and ran it through the department's records database, finding no match. Gonzalez says she tried to present a student ID to prove her identity, but the officer didn't accept it. She says she asked to call her mother, hoping she could bring the teen's Mexican passport to the scene. She says the officer declined that request as well.
"So you're illegal?" the officer asked, according to the account Gonzalez provided to the Scene.
Only some of this exchange appears in the official version of the incident, an arrest report filed by the Metro officer who sent Gonzalez to jail that night. There is no mention of the mother, the Mexican passport, the student ID, or questioning her immigration status — likely because an officer of local jurisdiction cannot legally ask that question. A spokeswoman for Metro police says there is no recording of the arrest, and the department is sticking with the details in the report.
Although she was driving without a license, there should be no question as to whether Gonzalez is the type of dangerous street criminal the Davidson County Sheriff's Office — in concert with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — purportedly seeks to tag and deport. She's a high school graduate with no criminal record who says she'd like to attend Western Kentucky University and get on a pre-med track.
But her arrest and subsequent deportation proceeding have ignited more fury over Davidson County's controversial 287(g) program, a federal initiative that allows sheriff's deputies to serve as de facto immigration agents, screening everyone who comes through the jail for immigration violations — including, and perhaps especially, those such as Gonzalez, who arrive on low-impact charges often administered by officers acting under a broadly defined kind of discretion.
The ordeal has also thrust Gonzalez forward as the latest face of a youth-led movement for passage of the federal DREAM Act, which would offer young people brought into the country without documentation a way to work toward education and citizenship.
Gonzalez was recognized last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual conference of the immigrant rights group National Council of La Raza, where President Barack Obama spoke. After the speech, she made her way to the rope line, handing Obama a graduation cap with a message about her situation inside. The president told her not to worry, that things would turn out fine for her. But the platitude didn't satisfy Gonzalez.
"He was really nice in what he was saying," Gonzalez says, "but we need to see actions more than words."
The NCLR estimates that some 65,000 kids and young adults who graduate from American high schools each year are undocumented. According to a July 2010 study by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, 2.1 million kids and young adults could be eligible for the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act.
In its current version, the bill would offer those who came to the U.S. before age 16 and have a high school diploma or its equivalent a conditional status. That standing would hinge upon completion of at least two years of post-secondary education or military service, as well as maintaining "good moral character." The bill places a six-year limit on conditional status and limits applicants to age 35 or younger.
"According to our analysis, the law's enactment would immediately make 726,000 unauthorized young adults eligible for conditional legal status; of these, roughly 114,000 would be eligible for permanent legal status after the six-year wait because they already have at least an associate's degree," the report reads.
Not surprisingly, the bill is stuck in the Senate, where progressive legislation goes to wither. Over the past 10 years, seemingly endless congressional dithering has befouled other versions of the DREAM Act.
Of course, none of that will matter to Gonzalez — who would qualify for the DREAM Act — if she is deported to Mexico.
Nine years ago, she says, her father was attacked in a random act of violence in their home state of Veracruz, which rides the Gulf along the southeastern edge of Mexico. They fled to the U.S., winding up in Nashville, where Gonzalez entered school, established a group of friends, and began getting involved with local community groups.
While Gonzalez has always had a vague awareness of her undocumented status, she'd been quietly hoping the DREAM Act would pass so she could stay in the country without concern.
Instead, Gonzalez got picked up on a ticky-tack charge that dooms to deportation a disproportionate number of undocumented immigrants living in Nashville.
After 287(g) began in 2007, the total number of Hispanic defendants arrested for not having a driver's license more than doubled from the previous year. And according to a January 2008 report from the sheriff's office, the top overall charge for those in the 287(g) population then was not having a driver's license. Even as late as July 2010, arrestees flagged by the sheriff's office for deportation were so disproportionately low-level offenders that the Department of Homeland Security — which oversees ICE — sent an email urging corrective action. Davidson County's was one of only nine 287(g) programs in the country so far afield of the new standard.
Infamously, Sheriff Daron Hall has refused to update the office's priorities for 287(g), despite a 2009 Memorandum of Agreement with ICE that seeks to definitively shift the program's focus toward dangerous criminals. According to figures provided by the sheriff's office, five 18-year-olds with only a charge of driving without a license — Gonzalez's circumstance — have been processed for deportation since Jan. 1. That's a minuscule percentage of the overall number of inmates processed for deportation (some 9,000 in the past four years).
But Hall's office has no policing authority, and his 287(g) deputies can't take action until Metro police send someone to jail. Over the course of the four-year program, many in the advocate community have suggested police followed the sheriff's lead by arresting those whom officers suspect to be undocumented for pretty much anything — especially not having a driver's license.
Elliott Ozment, the Nashville immigration attorney, is engaged in a lawsuit that could invalidate the city's 287(g) program as an overreach of Hall's law enforcement powers as sheriff.
"The program was sold as a device to catch and deport 'dangerous criminal aliens,' yet has been often implemented to deport persons who have been charged with nothing more serious than driving without a license, often after being stopped on the street through the use of racial profiling," Ozment says.
Metro police spokeswoman Kristin Mumford vehemently denies that accusation, accusing Ozment and other advocates who push it of "fear-mongering." She claims the department maintains a good ongoing relationship with the city's Hispanic communities. She also cites official police policy, which encourages officers to give citations to those who don't have a driver's license when possible.
"The officers are not targeting Hispanics," Mumford says. "He went to great lengths to try and identify her."
Gonzalez spent almost three days in jail. When she was released on her own recognizance, she says deputies there wouldn't allow her to use the phone to call for a ride home. She walked the two-hour trip instead.
Karla Weikal, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office, says Gonzalez should've had access to either jail phones or, at least, a pay phone in the lobby. She also denies Gonzalez's allegations that deputies there told her she would never see her family again, and that she'd never get to complete her education because she would be deported.
"Individuals who are incarcerated make many allegations," Weikal says. "We have no reason to believe these allegations are true."
Adrienne Schlichtemier, who as regional attorney for the group Justice For Our Neighbors is representing Gonzalez, says the teen doesn't plan to take legal action against the sheriff's office.
Gonzalez recently received a summons to appear in a Memphis immigration court, and though she doesn't yet know the date, Schlichtemier estimates the hearing will take place sometime in September.
Before then, Schlichtemier plans to petition ICE for a deferred action, a type of prosecutorial discretion that would give Gonzalez temporary status for a year. Considered a humanitarian gesture, such a move would acknowledge that Gonzalez — with good standing in the community, no prior record and no hint of violence — would also be eligible for the DREAM Act, were it to pass.
Manolo Lem, a man of Chinese descent brought to the U.S. from Venezuela at age 2, received deferred status from ICE in early May. The MTSU grad had been placed in deportation proceedings and would've been sent to Venezuela — despite the fact that he was raised in Tennessee, speaks no Spanish and has no family in that country. He would also qualify for the DREAM Act.
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition worked with United We Dream, a national coalition led by young people advocating for the DREAM Act, to coordinate the ultimately successful petitioning campaign for Lem. They're doing the same now for Gonzalez: An online petition urging leniency had 2,385 signatures as of Tuesday. According to TIRRC's Amelia Post, letters and other communications from supporters bring the total to about 3,000. All of that will go into the request for deferred action.
"My situation is really bad, but hopefully it will stop," Gonzalez says, leaving aside for a moment the gravity of the ordeal. "We still have hope."
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