Laura Blackwell Clark is a self-described “native-born, old, Southern, white woman” who became interested in immigration reform after taking up salsa dancing. “On a lark, my daughter asked me to go and I said yes,” Clark says, the joy of the moment returning to her voice. “That experience opened my eyes to a segment of the Latino community I had never known before.” As she got to know her fellow dancers and listened to their stories, she felt dismayed by all the challenges the United States immigration system was creating for her foreign-born friends. “I realized that what I read and heard about immigration in the media did not always jibe with what I was seeing face to face,” Clark says. So she decided to act. A longtime educator and assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University, Clark added equal access to higher education to her list of high-priority causes, testifying on Capital Hill in 2010 in support of the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. “Education strengthens our country,” she says. “To do nothing would have gone against everything our country stands for.”
For years, Clark hosted monthly meetings in her living room to share information with friends and neighbors about immigration legislation. She’s hired a tutor to provide free English lessons for her district’s Spanish-speaking residents, serves as acting director of the university’s Center for Educational Media and Faculty, and recently secured a $13,000 grant to fund a new program called La Comunidad, which provides mentorship opportunities for the university’s Hispanic students. “You know when you start on a project and it ends up taking on a life of its own? I started this with two professors and a few students in May 2016, and it has since expanded to include a leadership committee of 15 people and provides support to more than 1,000 students,” she says. “People just kept saying, ‘I love what you do. How can I help?’ ”
I realized that what I read and heard about immigration in the media did not always jibe with what I was seeing face to face.
Clark would like to see federal reform that grants students access to higher education based on their physical residence instead of their immigration status. “Right now, progress on immigration reform is vulnerable to the culture in each individual state,” she says. “In Tennessee, a student’s access to higher education is restricted based on their immigration status. Many of them don’t qualify for scholarships or in-state tuition, which puts an immediate roadblock in their way that seriously impacts their lives in terms of future earning potential and the ability of their families to stay together.”
If legislators established a system in which immigrants could work and contribute to the economy legally, Clark believes everyone would win. “Let us formalize something that lets our immigrant communities know: As long as you follow the law, we’re not out to get you; we welcome your contributions,” she says. Besides, “immigrants bring a global perspective to rural communities that, unless you travel, a lot of people have no other way of experiencing. So how can you broaden your perspective without them? “We all go to church together. We sit in the doctor’s office together. Our children play on the playground together. So why not make an effort to get to know each other on an individual, face-to-face basis?”