Google gets over 3.5 billion searches a day, processing over 40,000 searches each second. The most common Google searches in 2017 included weather, celebrities, the new iPhone, sporting events, and—making the top ten—fidget spinners. Many of us use Google daily to check how late a restaurant is open, to figure out the name of the actor on the tip of our tongue, to shop, to find directions or recipes, and to scare ourselves by reading way too deeply into the symptoms of a common cold. The quantity of information available to us with a simple search has created an impulse out of our curiosities. “Hey Siri, how old is Tom Hanks?” We often enter some of our most mundane questions into these wells of inquiry, but we often enter some of our most important questions, too. Questions which can change the trajectory of our lives and sometimes, as a result, the lives of our neighbors. Questions like the one Stacy Preston typed into her search engine one day: “What can I do in Jackson, Tennessee, to help immigrants?”
A year earlier, another question began to crystallize in Stacy: “What if I went back to work?” After seven years as a stay-at-home mom, Stacy found herself working part time at Foundation Bank, where she used her second language, Spanish, to assist Hispanic clients with their banking.
“It was challenging using my Spanish again,” Stacy says, “because it had been so long since I was using it consistently. But my favorite days at the bank were days that Hispanic clients would come in. Those were the most fulfilling.”
It was with her Hispanic clients that Stacy felt most helpful and when she felt most challenged in her role and in her language skills. Before long, her clients began coming to her with more than their banking needs. They came to her for help interpreting letters and documents or to ask questions about situations only someone who spoke English could help them navigate.
Stacy describes feeling like she was on a path, as if all her earlier experiences led her to this one, but even she didn’t realize that her time working there was leading to something new, too.
“I was just happily working in a bank with my Hispanic clients,” she says, "but I was thinking I want to do more than what I was doing. They did need help with their bank account, but there was really a much, much greater need. So many of them did need at the core, legal help. . . . At the time, I didn’t know that’s what it would be, but I knew it was a really, really big issue.”
Stacy’s last day working for Foundation Bank was in April. Since then, she has found herself traveling for weeks of intensive coursework in immigration law, networking, job shadowing, and working her way through the long application process to become accredited through the U.S. Department of Justice as a legal representative for immigrants. She and fellow Jacksonian and former lawyer Lynn Binkley are working together with All Saints Anglican Church to establish the new nonprofit, All Saints Immigration Services.
Before we go further, we need to rewind a little bit. We need to go back to before Stacy started her job at the bank; before kids three, two, and one; before she met her husband; before she could even speak Spanish. The path that brought Stacy to this point really began the summer before her freshman year of college when she landed a summer job working far from her Clarksville, Tennessee, home at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina.
While there, Stacy worked in the laundry department alongside a man named Rodrigo. He was young. “Maybe fifteen,” she says. “He spoke no English. His job was to wash sheets and towels all day. And that was when I first realized he represents a whole population. He could not speak to anyone who was employed with him. No one else spoke Spanish.”
Though Stacy took Spanish in high school, she did not know the language well enough to carry on a conversation with Rodrigo. Yet she, at eighteen, with the little Spanish she knew, was the only person who could communicate with him at their workplace. After witnessing the isolation Rodrigo faced working in an exclusively English-speaking environment, Stacy declared her major as Spanish when she arrived in Jackson, Tennessee, for her freshman year at Union University.
“I joined a Spanish church immediately as a freshman, and that was like fuel for the fire because in the next seven years I went from not speaking Spanish to translating services and doctor appointments and reading their mail and everything you can think of if they can’t speak English.”
In her seven years at Poplar Heights Spanish Church, Stacy did everything she could to immerse herself in the church community. She attended birthday parties, quinceañeras, and family dinners, not to mention the four weddings in which she was a bridesmaid for couples she had met at church.
As eager as she was to become a part of this newfound community, it was not always easy getting to know the people she longed to learn from and live life with. She explains that in immigrant circles people can be wary of outsiders due to past experiences of being hurt by Americans, issues of trust, or false expectations of what an American may be like. Though it took years for some of the church members to open up to Stacy and be willing to carry on conversations with her, she persisted.
“That’s something that has to be broken down on both sides,” she says of misconceptions between Americans and immigrants. “I knew it is a hard issue that had to be changed over time.”
Despite those who were cautious of her, there were also those who welcomed her immediately. On her first night at a weekly Bible study, Stacy met Juan Flores, for whom the group was praying that his wife, Maria, and their four-year-old daughter, Ana, would be able to join him in the States. Their study group would pray every week for Juan’s family to arrive safely, and when they finally made it to Jackson, the reunited Flores family welcomed Stacy into their lives. Stacy began spending more time with them, though Maria did not speak any English at that point and Stacy’s Spanish was lackluster. Stacy recalls Maria asking what the dishwasher was for, and Stacy went to buy some detergent to show her how to use it. Though Maria preferred to continue washing her dishes by hand and used the dishwasher for storage, it was little moments like the washing of the dishes that forged a meaningful relationship between Stacy and the Flores family.
“I lived with them during a [winter semester] in that tiny apartment,” Stacy says. “They gave me a bedroom, and the three of them slept in another room. I would eat meals with them at night. . . . It was really, really beautiful of them to open their home. They were just so willing, and that happened over the next ten years. They invited me to every birthday party, quinceañeras, every family event, even just to normal dinners. They became this really big part of my life, really.”
While the relationships Stacy formed during her years at Poplar Heights Spanish Church helped cement her love for Spanish-speaking people and gave her some insight on immigrant life, it was the summers she spent working with migrant workers and Mexican citizens that gave her a closer look into immigration stories.
“I saw one way of immigrant life in Jackson. . . . It was a good summer because it gave me a different perspective on immigration,” she says of her time working at a day camp for the children of migrant workers. Many of the children she worked with were not in school because their families were consistently moving to find work. They would come to North Carolina to pick peaches during the summer, where they lodged in trailers or small wooden houses in the peach fields.
“Migrant workers will come and go from Mexico mostly,” says Stacy, “so their life was very back and forth. It just depends which programs the U.S. allows migrant workers to come and work under, which changes a lot. . . . The immigrants in Jackson were, in a sense, lucky they were able to make somewhere home. A lot of these immigrants didn’t have that. It was a different perspective geographically.”
• • •
“Working on the border was the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Stacy says of her first summer after college working on the Juarez-El Paso border.
She worked with a group that would cross the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico—which would just a few years later become known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world—with church groups every week. They would spend the week in Juarez, working nine to ten hours a day building one-room homes out of mortar and cinder, and then Stacy would return to El Paso on the weekends before bringing another church group back to Juarez the next week. Stacy remembers being struck by her ability as an American to cross the border so freely, back and forth every weekend, between a place with so few resources and its neighboring city of so much more promise.
“You can literally see the lights of El Paso across the border in Juarez,” she recalls. “You’re literally staring at that, and it’s just a really hard way of life. . . . But I’m really grateful for that experience. It gave me a great perspective of border life and how little job opportunity there is and the daily struggle of trying to provide for your family, even basic shelter.”
Remembering a woman who was about to have a baby and hoped to cross the border before delivery so her child could be a U.S. citizen, Stacy remarks, “She only has ten miles to go, and then it’s a totally different life.”
Stacy points out, however, that there was also a love for Juarez among its citizens. There were many who were trying to turn a city known for its people wanting to leave into a city where people would not only choose to stay but could also thrive.
“They were really trying to fight to make it better, so also there was some hope in the midst of those places. There were a lot of things that were not hopeful as well, but there were groups of people trying to provide life and good things for families. That’s what we were doing there.”
When asked about the difference between the person who wants to invest in Juarez and her neighbor who wants to emigrate to the States, Stacy says emigration is usually a last resort to care for themselves or their families.
“I would say most immigrants love their home and wish they could stay there. . . . They love where they’re from, they want the best for their communities, and they want to stay there. But I think that there comes a point in their life or situation or because of the threat of violence that they have no option. . . .
“Most immigrants, especially when thinking about Central America, Mexico, even speaking of refugees, they’re escaping poverty and violence and lack of job opportunity. They see that as ultimately their last option for a better life for their family or to even continue to live for themselves. Every immigrant you meet will have a different story, and their reasons will be different, but you’ll find a lot of crossover in the fact of why they’re coming.”
For many undocumented immigrants, crossing the border can expose them to experiences of trauma, separation from family, and many risk their lives in the journey.
“I think they see it as worth the risk,” Stacy says. “They’re making really, really huge decisions knowing they’re leaving family. They’re making a decision that there’s a chance they may never see them again. If you listen to immigration stories, you find that it’s people leaving their kids or sending their kids alone. They are desperate and sometimes these decisions are made out of survival, something we cannot fathom as Americans.”
Long ago, Stacy made the decision to forgo asking anyone about their crossing stories, not wanting to pry into the difficult memories. It wasn’t until after fifteen years of friendship with the Flores family that Maria shared about her experience of crossing the border.
Of all her experiences and the relationships she has formed in the immigrant community, Stacy makes the point to say her perspective on the immigrant experience was perhaps most shaped by the time she spent living in a foreign nation herself. Stacy spent a semester of her junior year of college studying in Ecuador, and she describes how difficult it was living in a country where she was an outsider. She lived with an Ecuadorian family, went to an Ecuadorian school, and didn’t meet anyone who spoke English for months. She describes how vulnerable she felt in an unfamiliar culture, particularly in public, where she was harassed by men, nearly pickpocketed, and even robbed once.
“This experience helped me identify more with my own immigrant community in Jackson and back at the church I attended at the time,” she said. “It gave me grace to my neighbors and a deeper sense of what their needs are, which sometimes are just the most basic things that can bring relief. Reading mail, going to an appointment with someone, explaining social constructs that seem confusing, giving directions, explaining how to open a bank account or write a check—being an advocate. That is what I needed most during my experience away: an advocate.”
In a cultural moment when division seems to be at an all time high and drawing lines in the sand and defending our figurative turf is done with the passion of martyrs, it makes sense that our literal divisions, where lines are drawn between nations, would summon issues like immigration to the frontlines of public discourse. It’s this tumultuous and ever-changing legal landscape that All Saints Immigration Services (ASIS) hopes to help Jackson’s immigrants navigate.
At ASIS, Stacy, along with Lynn Binkley, will provide support to immigrants seeking assistance with naturalization, citizenship, visas, DACA, and other issues pertaining to their residence status. ASIS will offer educational resources and classes on topics such as immigrant rights, the immigration process, and how to apply for naturalization and citizenship. Stacy also hopes to offer a class on banking.
“Banking 101,” she calls it. “It was really hard for a lot of my clients to even understand how to open up a checking account or how to take out a loan. . . . Legal will be priority, but there will be other things people can come for to be educated about their rights and what they can do.”
ASIS will also partner with nonprofits and law firms in Memphis to ensure they are able to offer a full range of support. “Immigration law is so complex that every place has its own niche that they do best,” Stacy says. “We’re trying to network well so that everyone who comes in can be connected with someone who can help them.”
• • •
“Immigration as a whole is good for communities and is always going to be here and will always happen,” says Stacy. “Emigrating will never stop throughout the entire world. It’s human nature to emigrate. It starts in Genesis, and it never ends.”
Much of the public concern about immigration is over how it will affect our communities, and Stacy insists that immigration into our community is a good thing. When asked about the most common misconceptions about immigrants, Stacy cited that many people believe undocumented immigrants in particular don’t pay taxes yet use public benefits and that they fill jobs that would otherwise be filled by Americans in need of work.
“Both are false statements,” she says. Stacy explains that many undocumented immigrants are employed and receive a paycheck from which taxes are withheld, taxes which they are then unable to collect the benefits of, whether through tax returns or public resources such as medical care or supplemental nutrition assistance. She says even in cases where they do qualify to benefit from these services, many do not because of the fear that the collection of benefits will be used against them.
She refers to an article in The Tennessean which reported last year that the more than 322,000 immigrants living in Tennessee infuse nearly $6 billion into our state’s economy and that, in 2014, immigrants paid nearly $500 million in state taxes. Stacy points out that undocumented immigrants paying taxes under false social security numbers is a financial incentive for our government not to legalize the residency of these immigrants. A 2017 study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that undocumented immigrants pay $11.74 billion in state and local taxes every year.
One manufacturer in Jackson has expressed to Stacy’s family that they worry about increasingly stringent immigration laws because many of his employees quit out of fear as federal agents crack down on undocumented immigration with workplace raids like the one seen in Morristown, Tennessee, earlier this year. This employer expressed that the gaps these resignations create in his workforce are not then filled by American workers; instead, they remain unfilled.
Perhaps more importantly, however, Stacy argues that this kind of legislation and the fear it creates prevent us from benefiting from our immigrant neighbors in a deeper sense. She says this fear prevents undocumented immigrants from going to work, going to school, and being a part of our lives; and we miss out on the opportunity to learn from the different cultures and experiences of our neighbors.
“We’ve talked about it a lot more with our kids—what it means to be an immigrant, to be born in the U.S.,” Stacy says of how her work with ASIS has affected her own family. “They’re asking, ‘What are you going to do, Mom? What is your job? What does it look like to be able to help someone stay in the U.S.?’”
Right now Stacy and her husband, Landon, are trying to open their children’s eyes to the people around them. They try to make them aware of the immigrants they already know, love, and have relationships with, whether through family friends or from their schools. Soon the Prestons will be traveling to Spain where Stacy hopes the exposure to a different culture and foreign language will help their children have better conversations about immigration.
Landon has also been an advocate for Stacy as she seeks to become an advocate herself. She says she’s aware there are many strongly held beliefs when it comes to immigration and knows her natural inclination would be to go about helping others quietly. But Landon has encouraged her to be confident in her beliefs and to use her voice.
“It’s exciting to see something I thought never would happen, to use things I’ve studied and thought about for a really long time, to actually apply those and be an advocate, especially in a time like this. . . . Landon says, ‘You need to say something.’ . . . to trust there are things that are okay to speak up about and to say firmly, ‘I believe this is right. We need to be an advocate, and we need to use the resources and education and knowledge we have to be able to help others, to make their life easier for themselves and their families.’”
To those interested in building better relationships with immigrants and people from other cultural backgrounds, Stacy advises starting with one person.
“Most immigrants have never been in the home of an American for a meal,” she says. “That’s a great way to start, inviting them into your home. It’s easy to share a meal with someone. You can cook them a meal you’d normally eat, and they may have never even tasted it, even though they live in the same community as you.”
Relationship building, she reminds us, also takes time. “Just reach out to them, and realize, too, if they say no, that’s okay. Just give them space and time. If they don’t feel comfortable with that, then reach out to someone who is ready to have a friend across cultural lines. . . . You just never know where those relationships will go if you’re willing to open up and have relationships with people.”
All Saints Immigration Services will open its doors at 212 McClellan Road in 2019. For more information about ASIS or for currently available immigration services, you can visit the ASIS website.
Josh Garcia is a writer and photographer living in Charleston, South Carolina. A Jacksonian for nine years, he still refers to Jackson as "home." A lover of food, he enjoys cultivating community around the dinner table and misses the Donut Truck at the West Tennessee Farmers' Market almost as much as he misses all the amazing people. #INFJ