Latino Memphis Provides Shelter in an Uncertain World

By Stephanie Painter. Originally published in Memphis Parent Magazine

Sixteen-year-old Karla plans a special Mother’s Day celebration. The high school junior will serve breakfast in bed to her mom, honoring her mother’s presence in her life. Throughout the day, she’ll try to push aside the anxiety she has experienced the past few months. “I try to cherish every moment.”

Inevitably, though, she will read a news report or social media post outlining President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The president’s statements about mass deportation have sent alarm throughout the Latino community. Karla is a U.S. citizen, and her parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. “I worry that one day my parents may not come back to my house,” she says. “My 9-year-old sister looks at the news and worries when someone knocks on the door.”

In some families, all members may experience anxiety or depression. “Children are hearing the conversation at the dinner table, ‘What happens if I don’t come back today?’” says Latino Memphis executive director Mauricio Calvo. “For a community where family is everything, the fear of separation touches us at our core. Even if nothing happens, anxiety makes people sick. People fear that any interaction with the government will result in deportation — applying for food stamps for their U.S. citizen families, or going to any court, not just immigration court.” Some skip doctor’s appointments, and fear of deportation may prevent crime victims from filing police reports.

Approximately 20,000 Latino students are enrolled in K-12 education in Memphis. For those whose parents are undocumented, there’s real anxiety. At one elementary school, parents from four families approached a teacher, pleading with her to take custody of their children in the event of their deportation, according to Calvo. The stress and uncertainty impact students’ ability to learn.

“Teachers and counselors are a good resource for students and families,” says Calvo. “We think the best way for them to support local families is to help share the resources available and refer families to Latino Memphis and partner organizations that may assist them. Other much-needed support includes offering counseling sessions or referring families to a counselor when needed.”

Under the Trump administration, policies that guide the Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement of immigration laws have dramatically changed. “The thing that is different is that during the Obama administration there were priorities set so people who posed threat to the community because they had criminal offenses were the ones being deported,” Calvo says. “Rarely, they would deport women who had no criminal backgrounds or children or men who were just walking in the street. Under the current administration, the president has said everybody is a priority.” 

He adds, “The reality is that most people will not be deported — the funding isn’t there, the political will from Congress is not there. But people continue to think, ‘What if I’m the one?’ It’s a matter of giving people a sense of hope and empowering people on practical things, like arranging power of attorney and providing mental health support.”

Latino Memphis will launch a mental health model that empowers small support groups, and a bilingual licensed psychologist will provide support for a community that stigmatizes mental health issues. The organization will work with schools and churches to identify and support individuals who experience emotional setbacks or mental health issues. “We’re learning to manage stress,” says Karla. “Undocumented people can provide emotional comfort to one another — we’re not going through it alone.”

In many ways, Karla’s family is typical: Her parents work hard and pay taxes and have strong relationships in the community, and the children look forward to attending college. Yet their path isn’t clearly defined. So Karla chooses to step out and share her vision. 

Recently, she traveled with other Latino teenagers to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., participating in the National Council of la Raza’s Community Leaders Action Summit. During a meeting with Sen. Lamar Alexander, Rep. Steve Cohen, and an assistant to Sen. Bob Corker, their goal was “to represent undocumented people who are scared.” The teens pressed for attention to immigration reform, healthcare, and higher education issues. Karla also defends her parents and the contributions they have made here. “Undocumented immigrants are underrepresented — although they pay taxes, they don’t get any return or benefits,” Karla says.

Calvo points out that conversations with local officials have been encouraging. “With the positive response we’ve gotten from the faith and education communities, city officials, businesses, and philanthropy, we’ve actually been able to expand our services. It’s a reflection of the true values of our city and country that people have responded so well. I met with the police director, and his commitment is to serve and protect everyone, regardless of immigration status. Mayor Jim Strickland says the city of Memphis is not enforcing federal immigration law, just like we don't enforce the laws of the IRS.”

Calvo hopes the organization’s work will alleviate anxiety for undocumented immigrants. “Separating families is cruel and unusual punishment. In the United States, we believe in consequences and having a way to get right with the law. We need to create a system where people pay fines or consequences. It’s not that people don’t want to get right with the law, it’s just there’s no pathway to do it.”

Karla remains thankful that her parents raised her in the United States with its educational opportunities. On Mother’s Day, she’ll devote extra attention to her mom: “She has done everything for me.”

Planning for an Uncertain Future

To address fears that people in the community are having about the new administration and changes to immigration policy, the MEMigration Coalition (made up of Catholic Charities of West TN, Community Legal Center, Latino Memphis, and Memphis Immigration Advocates) presents workshops and helps undocumented workers request immigration files and criminal background information (federal and state), execute powers of attorney, apply for passports, and draft action plans in the event they are deported. Latino Memphis has four Derechos Immigration program attorneys. Visit for workshop dates and information.

Undocumented immigrants who are at risk of being detained should develop a plan that includes steps to take if detained, identification of trusted representatives to administer property and provide care for children, and collection of important documentation. Having a power of attorney is important so that if an individual is detained, a trusted family friend or relative can make legal decisions regarding property and provide care for children.

As part of the MEMigration Coalition, Latino Memphis also visits local schools and offers Know Your Rights presentations to inform parents and students of their rights. “Whether someone is undocumented, has an immigration application pending, has legal permanent residence or citizenship, it is important to know the rights afforded to individuals who are living in the United States,” Calvo says. “The exercise of these rights is particularly important for immigrant people because once someone comes into contact with an immigration officer, it is much more difficult to defend their right to remain in the country.” 

A list of rights can be found in Spanish at

Visit or call 366-5882 for more information about Latino Memphis. 

Barrier Free

Walls are symbols of division, protectionism, or power. Artist Yancy Villa-Calvo has created a wall of diversity that represents the strength of a diverse community. At the Latino Memphis Festival, Calvo’s installation will invite exploration of barriers that divide communities. “My work normally talks about the collective human connection. Being an immigrant has ignited a fascination with finding commonalities among cultures,” she says. 

Her project builds on the controversial idea of President Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead of concrete, the Barrier Free installation consists of portraits of local families and individuals representing the city’s diverse tapestry. There’s a large mirror along with images of “immigrants, refugees, Jews, LGBT individuals, Muslims, African-Americans, Caucasians, Asians, and others,” the artist says. “We are all intertwined through time and space, and this art installation lets us reflect on how we all are affected if a section of our community is threatened.” 

Villa-Calvo’s art includes cutout silhouettes portraying a father carrying a small child and a caregiver pushing a wheelchair. The images leave an empty space representing a missing person. “Everyone is an essential part of our community, and separating us, physically, emotionally or in any other form, makes our community incomplete,” she says. 

The installation will also be displayed in pop-ups around the city from May 1 through May 12. Barrier Free will then travel around the state and country, showing in Nashville in September.

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