A resident (top) at Prescott Place Apartments listens as activists talk about what their rights are during encounters with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents on July 23. ICE agents spent the afternoon knocking on doors and detaining people at Prescott Place Apartments. Community minister Edie Love is second from the right. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Dear Mayor Jim Strickland,

My earliest childhood memories are of sunlight, trees and belonging. I grew up knowing that I was born in Memphis, that my parents were born in Memphis, and that their parents, too, were from this area. I may not have had a perfect childhood, but I knew I belonged here. I have never felt unwelcome in Memphis.

Unfortunately, many of my fellow residents cannot say the same, thanks to the recent immigration raids on the Latinx community.

In 2014, as part of my training to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, I took a trip to the border at Nogales, Mexico, to learn about immigration. I walked through the Sonoran Desert where people are dying to get to this country. Along the way were many grave sites.

In Tucson, Arizona, I saw the immigration courtroom where people who had been detained were paraded through, like an assembly line in a factory.

One of them was a very pregnant woman, her hands shackled behind her back. These were not hardened criminals. For the most part, these were people whose only crime was being caught trying to enter the United States.

Later, at the heavily guarded official border crossing, I saw a man being escorted off a bus, being pushed back into Mexico. His feet were swollen and blistered from walking. He had no shoes and was on crutches.

People are risking death, imprisonment or permanent separation from their families to get to this country. Can you imagine leaving home with only as much food and water as you could carry, walking countless miles through a hot, brutal desert in an effort to have a better life for yourself and your children?

Last Monday, I met a woman whose friend was taken in a raid conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, because he happened to walk into the Prescott Place Apartments in East Memphis while ICE agents were collecting people who are undocumented.

He didn’t even live in the complex. He has two daughters, ages 4 and 6. He has a job, a car, a home. He’d been in this country over a decade. The woman said he was like a brother to her.

I talked to another woman who was asked by the ICE officials if people on the list they carried lived there. She denied that they lived in the neighborhood.

I was wearing my clerical collar, as I do as a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry when appearing for social justice issues.

She asked me if what she did — lying — was wrong. I emphatically told her no, it was not. She did the right thing.

Many undocumented immigrants have gone through hell to get here. Often Americans give them a different kind of hell once they arrive, thanks to racism, xenophobia, prejudice and just general hatred.

I have always felt like I belonged here. But many of our neighbors are persecuted, fearful, targeted by the color of their skin and their missing paperwork. They may have been in this country 10, 20, 30 years or more. But as it was for Jews in Nazi Germany and runaway slaves in the American South, the absence of official documentation can cost you everything.

This week, I spoke to a friend who works with the Latinx immigrant community here in Memphis. He told me that people who look Mexican or South American are being targeted in traffic stops. Once the police find out they lack proper documentation, ICE is called, and they are handcuffed and taken away. (Editor’s note: Both the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department have said they do not coordinate arrests with ICE.)

Others are caught in apartment complexes, which activists say ICE targets if there is a large Latinx population.

According to local activist Jose Salazar, law enforcement officials capture anyone they find, regardless of whether the individuals have a criminal record. It was Salazar who took this video — which has since gone viral — of an armed bail bondsman who was confronting people he believed to be Hispanic and demanding to see their green cards. (Editor’s note: ICE officials have said that this man, identified by Memphis police as Daquawn Simmons, does not work for ICE. On Friday, Memphis police issued a warrant for his arrest.)

According to a 2016 study by the New American Economy think tank, Tennessee is home to more than 332,500 immigrants. Memphis and Shelby County are home to about 57,000 Hispanics, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico or have Mexican heritage, according to a 2017 story in The Commercial Appeal.

If every one of those people who are undocumented were taken by ICE tomorrow, many restaurants, construction companies and home healthcare businesses would grind to a complete stop.

Immigrants pick our produce, clean our homes, build our businesses and serve vital functions that keep Memphis moving. Remove all of them and the city suffers. The impact of such a decision would be economically devastating.

My faith as a Unitarian Universalist calls me to work for justice for all people. It is a profound injustice to rip families apart, deporting decent people without criminal records, as ICE officials have done, said Latino Memphis organizers at a press conference Friday.

Mayor Strickland, you were asked not long ago if Memphis would become a “sanctuary city,” as New York, Baltimore, Austin, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, and Philadelphia are.

Your reply was that Memphis is “welcoming to all,” and that the Memphis police are not collaborating with ICE.

Even if that were true, why have you remained silent as ICE removes our decent, hard-working neighbors?

There is another way. Other cities — such as New Haven, Connecticut, Los Angeles, New York, Plainfield, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Chicago — have created municipal ID systems, so that people without documentation can move about their hometowns in peace.

A city ID would prevent people from being racially profiled and arrested because they do not have government issued-identification.

So how about it, Mayor Strickland?

Will you agree to explore municipal IDs for undocumented residents?

Will you speak out against the raids aimed at our friends and neighbors?

Where Do We Go From Here?

Here are some things you can do to support undocumented residents in the Memphis area.

  • Attend Saturday’s “Vigil for the End of the Separation of Immigrant Families,” organized by Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz (CUUV). The vigil will begin at 6 p.m. outside CoreCivc’s detention center in Mason, Tennessee. Participants are asked to meet at Caritas Village at 5 p.m. to drive to the prison. See the Facebook event for more details.
  • Support Latino Memphis’ Derechos (Rights) program.
  • Print your own “Know Your Rights” cards. Here’s a form from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
  • Make sure you know what your rights are if immigration agents are at your door. Below are short videos produced by the ACLU in English and in Spanish.

Edie Love

A lifelong Memphian, Edie Love holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree from Memphis Theological Seminary. She feels that her calling is to minister to those marginalized in the city of Memphis. She believes that all people are her people, the streets are her parish and everywhere we are is God’s holy ground.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.