Tennessee's Next Governor: How The Candidates Talk About Immigration — And Why It Matters | Nashville Public Radio

Tennessee's Next Governor: How The Candidates Talk About Immigration — And Why It Matters

Mar 19, 2018

About 315,000 people in the state are immigrants. That's works out to about one in 20 Tennesseans.

How other people feel about those newcomers has become one of the most polarizing questions among voters.

So, we asked the six people running to be Tennessee's next governor this question:

Do immigrants contribute to or take away from the state economy?

It's a seemingly straightforward question — one that gets at whether candidates see immigration as good or bad.

What's telling is how they answer it. None of the six major candidates for governor says immigration is a drawback.

But for some, such as Congressman Diane Black, there's a clear limit.

"I think when immigrants come into this country legally, they are of value," she says. "They've been of value ever since early on in this country, and certainly they're of value to today.

"I want them to come here in the right way — legally."

Black's emphasis on legal immigration is one often found among Republicans. House Speaker Beth Harwell and Franklin businessman Bill Lee made similar distinctions.

In fact, the conversation around immigration tends to turn so quickly to the debate over what to do about undocumented immigrants, it can throw Republicans for a loop to ask about other aspects of immigration.

Lee was a bit confused to be asked about immigrants more broadly. His first response was to clarify if we were really asking about illegal immigrants specifically or immigrants in general.

"Illegal immigrants are separate from immigrants," he says. "Illegal immigrants are here illegally, and we need to follow laws accordingly."

The only Republican who did not focus on immigration status was Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd. He instead spoke about his own ancestors.

"Immigrants add to our economy," he says. "Our country was founded on immigration. My family immigrated here in 1792 from Scotland, and it's something that is a bedrock of our community."

That's also how the Democrats, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, framed their answers. 

"Oh, my goodness, add to. No question about it," Fitzhugh says.

So why do these statements matter? Vanderbilt professor Efrén Peréz studies how politicians talk about immigration, and he says what they say can have major ramifications.

"A lot of rhetoric is pretty indiscriminate, right?" he says. "It's essentially a pretty blunt message that says, 'We don't want people like you here, and we're going to call you illegal immigrants.'"

Praise from politicians translates into better treatment — not just for immigrants themselves, but also for their American-born offspring, says Peréz. 

Whereas focusing on negative aspects, like illegal immigration, can trigger hostility.

QUESTION: Do immigrants contribute to or take away from the state economy?

Republicans

Diane Black: I think when immigrants come into this country legally, they are of value. They've been of value ever since early on in this country, and certainly they're of value to today. I want them to come here in the right way — legally.

I think that people that come to this country illegally should be held accountable for coming to the country illegally. Look, I've done medical mission work in a lot of places, and I can tell you, I don't go to Guatemala without being there legally. I don't go to Mexico without being there legally, because I know what's going to happen to me when I enter their country illegally. Same here. We should make sure we know who's coming into the country and that they're here for the right reason. We welcome people who come legally.

Randy Boyd: Immigrants add to our economy. Our country was founded on immigration. My family immigrated here in 1792 from Scotland, and it's something that is a bedrock of our community.

Beth Harwell: Well, I don't know that I have the statistics to back up an answer to that but certainly those that come and work and are productive and pay their taxes. … But certainly, they need to come here legally. That's the most important thing to most Tennesseans. I think if they're here illegally, they do not need to be here, regardless of whether or not they give to the economy or not.

Bill Lee: I think what's important to remember about immigration is where we have illegal immigrants in this state, that is something we deal with them as illegal immigrants. …

Well, certainly immigrants — illegal immigrants — are separate from immigrants, and illegal immigrants are here illegally and we need to follow laws accordingly. … Legal immigrants add to our economy, for certain, in the way that any legal resident does.

Democrats

Karl Dean: I think immigration has overall been a great thing for our country. In terms of, you look at the history of the United States and our prosperity is directly related to people who have moved to our country over the many decades it's existed. I think legal immigration has a very positive effect on the economy. In Tennessee, we have a lot of demand for employees. I think immigration has also been beneficial in that it brings talented people to the city, it brings talented people to the state, it brings entrepreneurs to the state, which is a good thing. …

Illegal immigration obviously is illegal, which creates a whole series of issues, but you know I think that's an issue that we have all waited on the federal government in Washington, D.C., to get their arms around. We've been discussing it for — I don't know how many years now — where they've been unable to pass legislation to successfully deal with that issue.

Craig Fitzhugh: Oh my goodness, add to. Without question about it. It's always been a little conundrum to me when people come here for jobs, and if there weren't jobs, they wouldn’t come. If we're going to be serious about not having immigrants here, the employers need to quit hiring them. And I don't say that as a realistic solution. They have employment here, so they're productive citizens.

We're a country, you know, 'Out of many, one.' That's our motto. So we don't need to forget that.