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Tennessee Primary: Yup, Republicans Are Attacking Immigrants Again

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Today, primary races in Tennessee voters will choose candidates for Governor, Senate, and several House races — and following the Trump/GOP 2018 script of divide and distract, attacks on immigrants were a central component. On the Republican side, the main immigration decision for candidates this year seemed to be how vigorously to attack immigrants. We have seen this political strategy repeatedly this year from GOP candidates, even though it has led to multiple Republican losses as support for immigration has continued to increase.

Immigration matters in Tennessee

Tennessee, like many parts of the nation, is undergoing a demographic change. In 2014, shortly after President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), he traveled to Nashville, Tennessee to discuss that policy, and the Tennessean explained why the choice of that community made sense:

An estimated 124,000 immigrants are living in Tennessee illegally, with some 50,000 residing in Davidson County. Under Obama’s executive order, up to half of Tennessee’s illegal immigrants would qualify for legal status, many of them because they are parents to children who were either born in the United States or have a green card.

Since 2000, immigrants have accounted for more than half of Nashville’s population growth. Driving those numbers are primarily Hispanic families, but the city is also home to large Kurdish, Somali and Burmese refugee groups.

As a result, the Metro school system is the most diverse in the state. Thirty percent of Metro’s public school students reside in homes where English is not the primary language, and 140 languages are spoken across the district.

The state, more recently, has felt the impact of Trump’s harsh deportation policies, including the revival of mass workplace raids. In April of this year, 97 immigrants were detained by ICE after a raid on Southeastern Provision, a cattle-slaughter facility in Morristown, Tennessee. The following day, over 500 kids missed school as the raid sent a ripple of fear throughout the community. (Listen to our podcast episode with Stephanie Teatro of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition here.)

And, the state’s voters are far more moderate than some of their elected officials according to a Vanderbilt poll conducted of 1,013 Tennessee voters between November 16 – December 5, 2017:

On immigration, Tennesseans have little taste for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. To the contrary, support continues to rise for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country while they apply for citizenship, with three in five Tennesseans now endorsing that approach and the remainder fairly evenly split between allowing them to stay as guest workers and deporting them. Support also continues to rise—up 8 points since May to 72 percent—in favor of allowing these immigrants’ children to be eligible for the in-state tuition rate at Tennessee colleges and universities.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the ways immigration is playing out in the 2018 primaries:

U.S. Senate  

For U.S. Senate, today’s primary will likely result in a matchup between former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen and Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn. They are campaigning to replace Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the two-term junior Senator who — after some back-and-forth — announced his retirement this year.

Blackburn’s campaign has been a model of the Donald Trump-GOP 2018 political strategy of fear-mongering against immigrants. In a rally with Blackburn in May 2018, Trump emphasized this strategy by calling House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi an “MS-13 lover.”

In her opening campaign video, Blackburn announced her support for both Trump’s wall and his Muslim ban. Blackburn has also taken to Twitter to attack safe cities. In one ad, Blackburn called for giving CBP, one of America’s “most out-of-control enforcement” agencies, whatever they say they need. Though she tried to distance herself from the “zero-tolerance policy” of separating families, Blackburn echoed Trump’s falsehood of blaming “liberals” for the problem.

Blackburn’s vocal support for Trump and his anti-immigrant politics may play well in the primary but might hurt her chances of winning in November, especially among women and mothers, who overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s separation of families.

But anti-immigrant fearmongering from Blackburn is nothing new; in 2015, she led an effort to end DACA for Dreamers that barely passed the House. And she has an A+ rating from NumbersUSA, an extreme restrictionist group which operates adjacently to hate groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and Center for Immigration Studies (CIS).


Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is the clear favorite on the Democratic side, but the Republican primary for Governor is a toss-up between four candidates, each of which has made the questionable decision to attack immigrants in an attempt to gain an advantage.

Republican U.S. Rep. Diane Black, who began with clear lead, has run no less than six different ads attacking immigrants. Black has run ads echoing the Trump Administration’s rhetoric on “catch and release”, attacking safe cities, targeting in-state tuition for Dreamers, calling on police to act as immigration enforcement, and supporting Trump’s border wall. Chris Crane, the restrictionist President of National ICE Council, the union that represents ICE agents, did a radio ad in support of Black.

Black’s repeated attacks on immigrants were apparently not enough for an outside PAC run by supporters of entrepreneur and rival Randy Boyd. The PAC ran TV ads criticizing Black’s past votes as “making it easier for criminals, even terrorists, to come here illegally and stay.”

Boyd has also run his own ads attacking immigrants. “Illegal is illegal,” Boyd says directly to the camera in an ad that goes after safe cities and supports Trump’s border wall. Boyd even made his opposition to safe cities a center plank of his campaign. And he has tweeted his opposition to in-state tuition for Dreamers, a position that is out of step with 66 percent of Tennesseans and half of Republicans, who are in favor of the policy according to a poll by Vanderbilt University.

State Speaker Beth Harwell has also come out against in-state tuition for Dreamers and touted her role in passing state legislation banning safe cities. Her campaign website claims “liberal extremists tried to make Nashville a sanctuary city in 2017; Beth joined with other conservative legislators to stop those efforts.”

Bill Lee, the fourth contender, ran an ad to reassure voters that he, too, would attack immigrants. Lee thoroughly detailed his anti-immigrant policy positions on his campaign website where he outlines his position against safe cities, Dreamers, and in-state tuition. He also made it clear that he supports Trump’s border wall.

The focused attacks on immigrants from all the Republican candidates may be out of step with what voters are actually concerned about. A Vanderbilt University poll in 2017 found less than 10 percent of Republicans viewing immigration as their first priority for state government to address.

U.S. Congress

Two candidates running in the Republican primary for Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District, the open seat being vacated by Diane Black, have made attacks on immigrants central to their campaign.  

Former judge Bob Corlew’s TV ad features him against the backdrop of the southern border fence, where he lists off his support for Trump’s wall and says he will “end chain migration, stop drug trafficking, no amnesty.” Corlew also ran internet ads with a picture of heavily tattooed men with the caption “stop drug trafficking and violent gangs from crossing our border”.

John Rose, a former Tennessee agriculture commissioner, took a similar tack. “Drug lords, MS-13, sex traffickers, do they run the border? Or do we?” an ominous announcer asks over dramatic music in Rose’s ad.  His ad also stated his support for family separation and called for an end to safe cities. Rose’s internet ads also featured heavily tattooed brown men and a call to “stop the invasion.”