In this week's dead-tree edition of the Scene, I tag along on a door-knocking trip with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and catch up with Mercedes Gonzalez, the undocumented Overton High graduate who became the local face of the DREAM Act fight when she was arrested last year.
"I'm here," Gonzalez, now 20, tells the Scene after recalling the ordeal. "And it's thanks to the immigrant voice that I'm here. And I want to give help and thanks back to the community. Supporting voting and making their voices heard."
According to the Migration Policy Institute, Tennessee's foreign-born population increased by 81.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, making it the third fastest growing immigrant population in the country. The 2010 American Community Survey found that 96,905, or around 33.5 percent, of Tennessee's foreign-born residents are U.S. citizens. Teatro points out that many within the immigrant community, however, are legal permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship.
Teatro tells the Scene that TIRRC hopes to have facilitated the naturalization of approximately 150 people by the end of the year through their periodic Citizenship Assistance Workshops, the fourth of which will be held Nov. 10. They also devoted much of the fall to a voter registration campaign. But with this year's election fast approaching, they have undertaken to make contact with those foreign-born citizens who are registered to vote, and implore them to exercise that right.
Toward that end they have sent two mail pieces and robocalls to more than 7,000 registered immigrant voters. But Teatro says they know face-to-face contact is most effective, particularly with newly registered or low-propensity voters. So they've pored over the rolls to identify registered immigrant voters who might be less likely to vote — those for whom this would be their first election, or those who are not consistent voters. To reach them, they've enlisted undocumented youth volunteers like Gonzalez to bring the message to their doors.
The volunteers risk a life-changing traffic stop just by driving to such events. But they say it's worth the effort if it gets immigrant voters to participate in a way they can't yet.
Those efforts weren't just directed at residents answering their doors, either. In an earlier conversation, when asked if I had voted yet, I shared that, given my job, I'd be abstaining from voting. And on the car ride back to the TIRRC offices, and as I went to leave, Gonzalez even turned the hard sell on me.