Our “Hidden” Neighbors
by Robbie Pinter

Skin.  It’s one of the largest organs of the body—it’s the one that holds the rest of the body together, literally. It protects the human body, keeps that body at the right temperature, and it allows people to have a sense of touch.  Some think the immigration issue is a matter of skin’s color.  If your skin is buffed sand it’s better than chestnut-hued but not as good as porcelain, according to some was of thinking.  Skin tone goes a long way towards deciding those who are accepted “aliens” in our country, versus those who are not. 

Immigration wasn’t always an issue connected to skin color.  My husband’s German ancestors and my friend’s Irish ones were essentially the same color.  Even though those people came to America from Europe soon after our Civil War, they were also seen as a threat to the country’s founding “core” of Anglo-Saxon Protestants.  These are the very people who current anti-immigration organizers favor—they entered the country legally.  Sadly, even these immigrants were not wanted.  They were characterized as trash that only polluted American soil. 

Yet even these people, once judged as inferior to those already living in America, were offered entry, even if they were offered little else.  Andrew Wainer, writing in a blog entitled “God’s Politics,” offers this statistic:  “Of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, only 2 percent were denied entry to the United States. Upon arrival, the vast majority of immigrants — most of them poor and uneducated — spent several hours at Ellis Island before they were legally admitted to America” (7/26/10).  This small inconvenience is nothing like the prejudice facing today’s incoming immigrants who are not granted access to America’s services.  The 2010 Tennessee legislature introduced measures as diverse as prohibiting immigrant mothers from receiving prenatal care, stopping community college students who were immigrants, and disallowing some immigrant children from registering their birth certificates in TN. 

The current immigration problem stems from illegal immigrants.  Certainly that’s a difference from 19th Century immigrants.  But why are so many in our country violently opposed to immigrants entering America?  It’s a complex issue, to be sure.  But somewhere in the complexity is the same reality we faced before: the visible illegal “aliens” don’t look like us, or look like that “core” group of Anglo-Saxons Protestants who founded the country.  The great difference is color.

Skin. It’s a powerful divider, probably because color provides a visible, albeit superficial way to separate people. People of the same skin color seem to want to be with others who look like them.  Many Americans want to see the skin tones that are safely fenced in by our natural boundaries: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and especially the Rio Grande and its environs.  But healthy skin is dynamic.  It breathes in order to keep alive all the internal organs it protects; it doesn’t shut the organs out, it just lets in what’s outside its boundaries in order to keep the body alive.  If we shut off what lies right outside the boundary of our skin, we would die.  This organ that covers the body also allows for what’s inside to grow without stagnating. 

Fortunately, Tennessee is not stagnating. According to a report by the Perryman Group, “if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Tennessee, the state would lose $3.8 billion in economic activity, $1.7 billion in gross state product, and approximately 25,919 jobs, even accounting for adequate market adjustment time.”  Although Tennessee  may not be stagnating, we don’t seem to be growing without problems.  For help, we could look towards a recent time when Nashville experienced social conflict—during the Civil Rights movement. 

Nashvillian John Egerton wrote Speak Now Against the Day to document the importance of  the racially-charged 1950s and 60s, the generation before the Civil Rights movement in the South.  Segregation by skin color was normal in the 1950s in Nashville.  It took the good faith and leadership of local leaders to work with this issue, then to speak up against it.  One key issue was leadership.  In any social movement, there are always leaders, people who see a problem and offer a road map to work on it.  Implicit in Egerton’s work is the question, “what social issue do people of conscience need to address in each generation?”  It makes me ask what should Nashville “speak now against?” To me, unfair immigration laws top that list.

Nashville is still a forward-thinking city, and we are fortunate to have has local leaders who will address the controversial issues that divide us.  Many people not only believe that solutions exist to these seemingly entrenched social problems, but they act on their beliefs.

Among the many who are “speaking against” unfair immigration practices in Nashville are two men who happen to be father and son and they are offering ways for Nashville to work with the immigration issue, not against. Through different venues, they are asking us to come together and think, act, and sometimes pray about this issue that is dividing our city.  Jim Zralek, long-time community activist and former priest will be addressing the immigration issue as one related to faith.  Beginning Sept. 14, Jim will facilitate a weekly discussion entitled "Crossing Borders: Migration, Theology and the Human Journey" as part of the national faith-based curriculum from Just Faith

Stephen Zralek, Jim’s son, is president of the Nashville grassroots group, Nashville 4 AOU (Nashville for All of Us).  Stephen’s letter on the web page describes the group’s purpose: “We are an independent, diverse community coalition that challenges each other’s perspectives and informs and shapes public policy to promote a productive, just and welcoming Nashville for all.”   The letter specifies that it wants to “serve as a table to host the conversations necessary to identify and address new issues relating to prejudice and exclusion in our community.” 

Skin.  It covers the human body.  It doesn’t divide.  Nashville has a Civil Rights legacy to live up to.  This year, as Nashville and the rest of the world honors the student sit-ins that were so instrumental in the first part of the Civil Rights movement, we can remember that our community has a choice. We can stay entrenched in the way we used to be, or we can find a way to honor that which has the potential to divide us.   Instead of looking at the issue from already closed minds, maybe it’s time to see what middle ground there is.  Consider discussion.  Consider attending the workshop or taking the survey that N4AOU posts on its website.  There are many ways to act, and looking for the middle ground is a good place to start.


Gypsy woman at Ellis Island (Photograph by Augustus Sherman)

Immigrant Woman ca. 1920s

Immigrants ca. 2010



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