CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (WDEF) — There’s been talk about sanctuary cities, from the president of the United States, to the local level.
But is Chattanooga one? It depends on who you ask.
You can find cultures from all over the world here in the Tennessee Valley.
Volkswagen’s presence cemented Chattanooga as an international city.
The economy has driven immigration for better or worse.
“From day one I’ve said, and I mean the immediate removal of criminal aliens,” said President Donald Trump. “They’ll be gone. Fast. And finally, at long last, cracking down on sanctuary cities.”
And this stance has many here in the Tennessee Valley concerned about their future.
“People have been fearful,” said Stacy Johnson, executive director for La Paz Chattanooga. “There also have been a lot of rumors coming from we’re not sure where, even inside the Latino community of deportations, raids, things like that.”
The non-profit group, La Paz Chattanooga, which serves the Latino community, says they’re not seeing any changes, but their goal is to keep residents informed about what’s happening now, and what’s to come.
“We at La Paz are really trying to make sure that we educate the Hispanic/Latino community, make sure that they’re getting their information from a trusted source,” Johnson said.
La Paz even recently teamed up with Chattanooga police to ease some of those fears by holding community meetings.
“We’re very pleased to be progressive and proactive enough that we’ve built those relationships before that portion of our community sensed an impending crisis,” said Chief Fred Fletcher, Chattanooga police department.
At one meeting, Chief Fletcher told News 12 police will never ask a person’s immigration status.
“Our vision is to be trusted and respected by all segments of Chattanooga’s diverse community,” Fletcher said. “That includes all aspects of the community regardless of their immigration status.”
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond tells us we shouldn’t expect to see any changes here, even with a new president.
“We use probable cause for any type of crime we’re looking at,” Hammond said. “We’re not going to go out here on a hunt to see who’s registered, or who’s not registered, who’s become a citizen, who’s trying to become one.”
Hammond says local law enforcement officers have a good relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but they aren’t going to do ICE’s job for them.
“We only use immigration enforcement as it comes to notifying ICE if we do have a suspect who we feel will not give us true information of who they are,” Hammond said. “They have no license. They have no address. They say they don’t speak English. There may come a point we will ask ICE to come in and help us identify who the person is for our needs. Incident to that, if it is determined that they are illegal, we will turn them over to ICE.”
But despite recent immigration concerns at the national level, a majority of residents feel Chattanooga is a welcoming city.
“Is Chattanooga a sanctuary city?” reporter Emily Cassulo asked. “What is a sanctuary city?” Chief Fletcher said. “Someone who welcomes people here, who wouldn’t turn them away based on immigration status,” Cassulo said. “I find Chattanooga to be a very welcoming city, so by the definition that you provided, I think that we are a very welcoming city,” Fletcher said.
La Paz surveyed more than 450 Latino adults in late 2015. 71 percent of them said they always felt welcome in the Scenic City – one reason why so many of them are moving here.
“The estimates from the census say that by 2020, 15 percent of the total population will be comprised of Latinos,” Johnson said.
An estimated 20,000 Latinos live in Chattanooga right now.
Anjelika Riano coordinates the language acquisition programs at Hamilton County Schools. So she sees firsthand the growing number of Hispanic students.
Riano says Chattanooga is very diverse, with 77 different languages spoken in the area. 45 of them are spoken in the schools.
“We’ve got representatives from every continent, whoever you want, you know, we’ve got them here, and guess what? They come to our doors,” Riano said.
The school district offers classes and after school programs to help non-English speaking students acclimate.
Riano says as a public school system, they serve the community, so they don’t ask a person’s legal status.
“They can tell us, and some of them do,” Riano said. “We do not keep any records of who is legal here, who is not legal. We don’t discriminate against that way. And you would be surprised, actually for any parents, we can ask for social security, but they don’t have to give it to us.”
District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd says he considers Chattanooga to be a sanctuary city, even if it isn’t “officially.”
“A lot of our own communities need sanctuary, and so I haven’t seen it on paper, but I would love to make that happen, because all those sanctuary for our immigrants, a lot of us are immigrants in our own city, and we need sanctuary, so I think we need to move forward in putting that on paper, as well,” Byrd said.
Even if it doesn’t happen, Byrd says the best thing the city can do is to continue to educate residents about their rights, and the proper way to becoming U.S. citizens.
“We need to unify, and welcome and understand,” Byrd said. “If you don’t understand a person’s culture, or where they’re coming from or where they’ve been, or even their lingo, how can you understand them? And how can you serve them to your best ability?”
Johnson says Chattanooga doesn’t need to become a sanctuary city if everything is OK as it is right now.
“I think not asking for immigration status, not doing anything different than what’s been done in the past, I think everyone feels safe here, and hopefully will continue to,” Johnson said.
Coming up Thursday at 6 and 7 p.m. on News 12, we talk with North Georgia leaders, activists and law enforcement officers about how their area is being impacted by these federal illegal immigration threats, and how they handle undocumented immigrants.
Video – Part 2