Elliott Ozment, founder and managing attorney at Ozment Law Firm, has made a career of defending the underdog, and that includes Nashville’s foreign-born. Again and again, immigrants run up against outdated visa quotas, decades-long waiting lists, an expensive, burdensome process, and threats of deportation.
Ozment tells the story of an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, a woman who was nine months pregnant, who was arrested and jailed following a misdemeanor traffic stop and gave birth several days later with her ankle shackled to a hospital bed. She was later returned to jail without her newborn son or her breast pump, causing her to develop a painful breast infection. “The judge decided she was the victim of a crime committed by the metro government, and because of that, she was awarded a visa,” says Ozment, who represented the woman in a civil suit. After a five-year legal battle, Nashville and county authorities paid to settle the case. “That is one of those stories that captures the imagination of the whole United States,” he says.
That’s the human side of immigration and what Ozment does. But by helping immigrants he also helps the local economy. Immigrants in Tennessee’s Fifth Congressional District, where Ozment lives, pay $419 million in taxes and hold $1.4 billion in spending power. If they left, the region would lose $1.4 billion in rent and mortgage payments, grocery and clothing purchases, gas-tank fill-ups and more. “We certainly have factories in the outlying area that hire immigrants,” says Ozment, whose firm has been operating in Nashville for about 20 years. “They had a raid a couple years ago that devastated the area. One of the factories nearly shut down, groceries didn’t sell as much food, landlords couldn’t find people to rent their rooms. Even the tax base fell because people were spending less, and Tennessee only has sales tax.”
In addition to the role immigrants play in the manufacturing industry, foreign-born workers also account for a large portion of the construction, agriculture, entertainment, and recreation industries in the district. Ozment says many Tennesseans are opposed to immigrants without realizing that the local economy depends on them. Recently, the owner of a large landscaping business asked Ozment about visas for immigrant workers because he couldn’t find U.S. workers who were interested in doing the work and could pass a drug test. “He said ‘If I didn’t have these immigrants to work the yards and do this landscaping, I would go out of business, and I’m not the only one,’ ” recalls Ozment.
Our failure to reform the system is having a profound impact on families that many people don’t realize.
At the same time, Ozment points out that many immigrants are building businesses and creating jobs. The district is home to nearly 3,400 immigrant entrepreneurs. At a single Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event, Ozment met a clothing designer for country music celebrities, a doctor who had opened clinics in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, a baker of Mexican breads and cookies, and the founder of a school specializing in training for medical fields with workforce shortages. “We’ve had a huge influx of immigrants over the last 15 years, and I think it’s because they know we welcome and value them,” says Ozment.
The current political climate may be changing that perception, however. While Ozment considers Nashville to be a progressive city, he says his office, which generates more than $1.5 million in annual revenue, is now meeting with six or more new clients a day, half of whom want to move forward with representation. “Our failure to reform the system is having a profound impact on families that many people don’t realize,” Ozment says. “Every week I have clients that come into my office with tears in their eyes, because they say their children — many of whom are American — are being persecuted at school because they are Hispanic and being identified as ‘illegals’ and being told to get ready because they’re going back to Mexico. And it’s coming from their schoolmates who are reflecting what they’re hearing and seeing at home from their parents.”
Ozment would like to see Congress revisit the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was passed by the Senate in 2013, only to later be defeated in the House. The legislation would have established a 13-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, imposing security criteria that must be met along the way; introduced a new visa for lesser-skilled workers who don’t qualify for high-skilled worker visas; and focused immigration policy more on work skills.
“It’s in our best interests to legalize people who, yes, made a mistake when they crossed the border without a visa, but since coming here have been by and large very constructive members of our society,” he says. “Let’s treat them like anyone else with a misdemeanor: Have them pay a fine and then move on with their lives so that they can eventually become proud Americans.”