The Heights

Memphis immigrants meet for paletas and solutions for a more immigrant-friendly city

Resident immigrants representing communities from across the globe gathered for a community meeting as a part of the Gateways for Growth Memphis Initiative, held May18 at La Michoacana Restaurant at 4091 Summer Avenue.

The Memphis initiative hopes to help the Memphis metro area become more welcoming towards naturalized citizens and foreign residents. It’s led by Latino Memphis, Welcoming America and New American Economy.

Gateways for Growth Challenge is a program in which public and private institutions compete to receive grants and technical support to aid with promoting local immigrant integration and inclusion.

According to their website, Latino Memphis is the largest Latino-serving nonprofit in West Tennessee, serving thousands of clients each year and advancing awareness of the many issues impacting the Latino community.

Attendees listen as breakout groups present findings at the first Gateway for Growth community meeting helped at La Michoacana Restaurant on the border between Berclair and The Heights. (Submitted)

Also according to their website, Welcoming America is “a non-profit, non-partisan organization which works to change systems and culture by helping communities create policy, reinforce welcoming principles, and communicate the socioeconomic benefits of inclusion.”

New American Economy is an organization founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and media mogul Rupert Murdoch to influence policy makers and business leaders towards immigration reform.

Several dozen participants gathered at La Michoacana at 12 p.m. to sign in, don name tags and mingle before introductions by the partner organizations, as well as Ana and Rafael Gonzales who own the restaurant.

The Gonzales’ shared their experiences and insights as immigrant entrepreneurs to motivate and inspire others in the crowd who wish to follow a similar path.

The restaurant which has three Memphis locations, is known for their delicious paletas, a type of Mexican ice pop made with juice and chunks of fresh fruit, and has become a staple for residents of the The Heights, Berclair and beyond. It serves over thirty thousand frozen treats a week.

“It may take years for your idea to catch on,” said Rafael Gonzales. “It may take five, ten, 20 years, but if you want to be successful you should never give up.”

According to organizers the purpose of the event was to facilitate a brainstorm to come up with answers to several questions: what are possible solutions which would assist immigrant communities in Memphis, what are other cities doing, what is Memphis doing and what are we not doing yet, what could our city become as it relates to our immigrant population, and who are the players who should be involved?

One group was asked to focus on the barriers which limit civic engagement in immigrant communities and possible solutions to further enable and motivate migrant residents to become more engaged in local communities. Some in the group noted many immigrants feel a general sense of fear about becoming involved in public affairs, more specifically fearing legal repercussions and conflicts with local institutions and native-born communities.

“People are afraid to come out to events like this because they feel like it’s going to be a trap,” said Silvia Alvarez, a member of the steering committee for Gateways for Growth Memphis.

“They think that they will be targeted by the police or government agencies, like if they come to something like this ICE is going to come and grab them.”

Participants in the group also said they feel there is a shortage of resources such as bilingual staff at the Department of Human Services, legal support services, and cultural sensitivity training which affect immigrants whether they are in Memphis legally or otherwise.

“I think the Memphis community would benefit a lot from more cultural sensitivity training and legal support, there’s Memphis Area Legal Services but they are swamped. We need more resources like that,” said Leslie Smith, advocacy and engagement program manager for BLDG Memphis.

Participants stated that language barriers, a lack of transportation, limited understanding of laws, and difficulty of accessing mental health services also act as barriers to civic engagement for Memphis immigrants.

Immigrants from diverse backgrounds participated in group discussion on topics related to immigrant needs, safety and contributions to Memphis. (Submitted)

Those present in the group suggested that English and cultural sensitivity classes, translation and consulate services, a campaign that would identify welcoming spaces for immigrants, as well as voter registration and the implementation of instant run-off voting would encourage greater civic engagement by immigrant communities in the metro area.

The day’s events came to a conclusion with presentations of the issues and solutions each group identified during their breakout session and a final word by event organizers, after which attendees socialized and enjoyed paletas and other free snacks.

“We hope to hold a lot more discussions like this before we submit our final report next year. From here we hope to hold events like this targeting specific immigrant communities with discussions in their own language to get a deeper understanding of each community’s specific needs, so please continue to think about which communities you have connections to and get in touch with us about setting up an event,” said the Gateways for Growth Memphis project manager Yancy Villa-Calvo.“
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Read more articles by Baris Gursakal.

Baris Gursakal is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is an Istanbul native who grew up in Memphis, and has an interest in public policy and social justice issues.