By Josh Cross
Local government officials, politicians and business owners gathered March 22 to share their thoughts on what immigration reform should address as well as talk about the increasing cost associated with illegal immigration in Sumner County.
More than 15 individuals with various roles across the county gathered at the Sumner County Administration Building to share their thoughts on the topic during the Sumner County Immigration Roundtable led by U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin.
The roundtable discussion was the fourth stop for Black, who plans to hold similar events in each of the 19 counties in her district.
"Immigration reform is coming," Black told those in attendance. "I want to not only be a part of the conversation, but I want to be sure that as I am part of that conversation that I am representing my district and taking issues that I hear to Congress."
Roundtable participants not only gave updates regarding illegal immigration in Sumner County, they also discussed what was working and what needed to be changed as a part of any immigration reform that could take place.
Business owner Jim Donoho uses the H-2A guest worker program to help staff his Portland nursery. While he said the program allows him to get capable legal workers, increasing government regulations have not only increased the cost of participating in the program but also made it much more time consuming.
"It's just getting to the point where it's hard to afford, and the regulations are just becoming ridiculous," Donoho said.
The H-2A guest worker program was passed in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act and is one of the primary legal ways for employers to hire seasonal agriculture workers.
Sumner Regional Medical Center C.E.O. Susan Peach said that changes in public health law requiring documentation have resulted in undocumented immigrants coming to the hospital's emergency room for primary care, where no such proof is required.
"It's a growing issue for us," she said. "It was 6 percent two years ago and it went up to 8 percent, and now it's 10 percent of what is coming into the emergency center."
Both Hendersonville Police Chief Mickey Miller and Gallatin Police Chief Don Bandy said that neither city has seen a large problem with illegal immigrants.
"I don't think it has hit us yet," Miller said. "I think that the trend is coming our way."
Most of the crimes that were committed in Gallatin last year were alcohol related, Bandy said.
Anthony Holt, county executive, cited the expensive impact illegal immigration has on the cost of running the Sumner County Jail, which provides healthcare to inmates.
"When you realize that we have an obligation to our citizens and these people are not actually citizens and we're having to pay that much money out, the local taxpayers are having to pick up the bill," he said.
Law enforcement officials also talked about problems with deportation and how they would like to see the process sped up and become immediate for repeat offenders.
While law enforcement deals primarily with the criminal side of illegal immigration, Jerry Faulkner, president of Volunteer State Community College, says he deals with a different segment of the population.
"I guess my thoughts on immigration are colored by the fact that I'm seeing the portion of the population that have really dedicated and want to advance themselves," Faulkner said.
This year, the college has 159 students that are non-citizens, Faulkner said. Of those, 33 students are on an F-1 Student Visa, while the remaining students are either permanent residents or undocumented.
But, for Sumner County Schools, the numbers are not clear as the system is prohibited by federal law from asking for proof of citizenship.
Director Del Phillips said the only way for the system to get a rough estimate on the possible number of illegal immigrates in public schools is to go by its number of English Language Learners, which has been slightly on the rise.
There are 639 English Language Learners in Sumner County. That number is up from 450 two years ago, and next year the system expects that number to be around 730.
Currently, the system has over 60 languages that it tries to interpret, Phillips said, and the student's progress is measured by proficiency benchmarks set by the state.
"If they can perform proficiency at 18 percent of the state-mandated tests, then they consider that to be okay, I guess you could say," Phillips said. "For our system last year it was 31 percent, so from an academic standpoint we do a pretty good job with those students."
Phillips said that if the student's parents are asked to come for parent meetings, the system has found that they show up and support their child's education.
For college students who are legal citizens, if they are still listed as dependents of their undocumented parents, they have to be charged out-of-state tuition.
"I don't know what the answer is, but I think we've got to find an answer because again I deal with the people that really want to continue their education and become contributing members of society," Faulkner said.
Parts of solution take shape
When discussing the issue and possible solutions, Black noted that the topic is a "mixed bag" and contains a lot of emotion.
"This is really hard because we are a country obviously of immigrants where we want to offer an opportunity," she said. "I think we are trying to do the best we can to figure out how we can take care of this."
As part of any type of immigration reform, issues facing those trying to come here legally need to be addressed in addition to dealing with those already in the country, Black said.
"We've got to do a better job in making sure that when people want to come here legally for the right reason that we have a path that's easier for them to do that," she said.
But for the estimated 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here, Black said that there has been talk of making those in the country pay a yet-to-be-determined fine. Those who want to become citizens can do so, but they also must get in line behind those waiting to do so legally.
"The number-one thing you have to ensure is that when we do whatever we do we're not going to have to do it again," she said.