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An internal flap over immigration escapes the doors of the powerful downtown Rotary Club

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Four questions are supposed to govern the Monday lunch hour of Nashville's movers and shakers: "Is it the Truth? Is it Fair to all concerned? Will it build Goodwill and Better Friendships? Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?"

The members of the Rotary Club of Nashville — the downtown one, or as a source puts it, "the powerful one" — stand and recite it aloud together before their weekly meetings, typically held at the Wildhorse Saloon. But at a recent gathering, the recitation of what the club describes as its "four-way test of the things we think, say or do" sounded more than a little ironic.

Over the past month-and-a-half, the civic organization has been host to an insulated controversy that has ruffled the traditionally sedate membership. Rotarians contacted by the Scene say some of their fellows have not aced the four-way test, at least in regards to one of Nashville's thorniest persistent issues: immigration.

The flap started in April when Hispanic community leader Renata Soto came to address the club in favor of immigration reform. Soto is the co-founder and executive director of Conexión Américas, an advocacy group for Nashville's growing Latino community. She's also a Rotarian.

Soto was on vacation out of the country with family and unable to comment for this story. But according to the text of her remarks, provided by Conexión Américas, she told the club that "common-sense immigration reform is a national emergency and a local priority because our current immigration system is broken, is outdated, and it doesn't serve the social and economic interests of the nation."

In response to "some irresponsible media personalities and politicians" who have "dehumanized the issue of immigration to the point that it has been reduced to a faceless conversation," Soto introduced her guest Oscar Rayo, who came to Nashville from Mexico — by way of the Rio Bravo River and a seven-hour walk through the desert — with his father and brother when he was 12 years old.

Six people reached by the Scene who were present at the lunch describe the standing ovation that followed Soto's remarks — a rare event at the traditionally staid gatherings, they say. But not everyone was clapping. During the Q&A session that followed, according to members, one man stood up and essentially asked, "Why don't you people go home to your countries and improve the conditions there instead of coming to our country?"

Members contacted by the Scene said they didn't know who asked the question. But they say Soto wasn't phased.

"She handled it so beautifully," says Nashville attorney and former Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Bob Tuke, laughing as he recalls Soto's riposte. "She said, 'You know, that's one of the things we all need to do. We need to help our nations of origin, wherever they may be, to improve the conditions there, while we're working so hard in our own country here.' It was just beautiful. It completely shut him down."

Conexión Américas communications strategist Carrie Ferguson Weir tells the Scene that Soto "received many follow-up emails and calls congratulating her and thanking her for the speech." Last month, however, Weir says the organization learned that "three Rotarians were upset by Renata's speech."

The unnamed members were angered by Soto's presentation and the lack of equal time for their side of the debate, and their objections were heard. The club scheduled a presentation from Mark Krikorian, executive director of a controversial Washington, D.C., think tank called the Center for Immigration Studies — a booking that puzzled a number of club members.

What had been a minor internal conflict up until then soon escaped the confines of Nashville's Biggest Power Lunch. At the Rotary's July 15 meeting, assistant director Dana Tepper stood ready with a printed statement from the organization, explaining that the club was granting a request from "several members [who] requested an opportunity to hear another perspective on the issue." The statement clarified that the club "does not endorse any political candidate, a particular public policy or the political or policy positions of our speakers."

Yet Krikorian's own associations were a source of consternation amongst some Rotary members. He and CIS have long been questioned for their early connections to John Tanton, a controversial figure on immigration issues. Tanton's group ProEnglish provided much of the financial thrust behind then-Metro Councilman Eric Crafton's "English Only" proposal in 2008. Krikorian has asserted for years that his organization's connection to Tanton has been greatly exaggerated, and he repeated as much to reporters after his Rotary speech.

Which only made Krikorian's opening act at the club more notable. Giving Krikorian a glowing introduction was William Morgan, president of century-old Nashville foundry John Bouchard & Sons Co. and a former chairman of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. Morgan helped organize the infamous closed-door meeting of business leaders, lawmakers and conservatives in 2011 that hatched the effort to nullify Metro's nondiscrimination ordinance.

Krikorian's speech focused on what he sees as the flaws of the so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" bill passed by the U.S. Senate last month. Primarily, he criticized the way the bill "legalizes the illegal population first, then promises to enforce the law in the future," a setup that he said "guarantees serial amnesties every 10 years." He also warned of the consequences of increased legal immigration.

Speaking to reporters, Krikorian addressed the notion that his Rotary appearance might look out of place in a state whose two Republican senators supported the Senate immigration bill, and a city whose U.S. representative and legislative body have done the same.

"What that really suggests is how much this isn't really a right-left issue, but is an up-down issue," he says. "It's elite versus the public. In other words, it's business elites, political elites, religious elites, academics, journalists, etc., versus the rest of the public."

With the ovation that followed Soto's speech still ringing in their ears, some members had poor reviews for Krikorian, whose presentation ended with polite applause and only one question.

"Frankly, the presentation, I thought, just fell absolutely flat," says Tuke, who asked the sole question, regarding the economic impact of the Senate bill. "Stunning. Honestly, I've never seen it before."

Gregg Ramos, a former president of Conexión Américas and a Rotary member, says Krikorian's views are "out of sync with the majority of Americans." While the club "should be commended for providing another perspective on the issue," he says, Krikorian didn't fit the bill. He also shares Tuke's surprise at the lack of engagement from members in attendance.

"I thought it was really telling that people just wanted to leave," Ramos tells the Scene.

Of course, there is another view. Morgan says "a number of prominent Nashville businesspeople" approached him and Krikorian afterward and "thanked him for being here and said they appreciated what he said."

As for assessments of the crowd reaction, which a Tennessean report described as a "smattering of applause," Morgan disagrees, describing "a very nice applause at the end."

That seems relatively fair to all concerned. Where the Rotary's recited principles are concerned, at least that's one out of four.  

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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