As children licked blue icing off cupcakes, sipped red juice and stared at video game screens in a cafeteria Thursday night, their parents asked whether they were going to get kicked out of the country.
Chattanooga Police Department Chief Fred Fletcher told them he couldn't speak for the national climate or policies coming out of the White House. But, he said, his department will not be changing. He is not on a mission to deport immigrants who came to this country illegally, he said.
"Nothing has changed for the Chattanooga Police Department," he said at East Side Elementary School, to a crowd of about 300. "We have never asked the immigration status of anybody we have ever encountered. And we have no plans to change that practice."
After the meeting, sponsored by La Paz Chattanooga, Fletcher clarified that the issue of immigration is too complex for sweeping declarations. If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents issue a detainer to deport somebody, local police must honor the demand. And if a judge issues a warrant, they have to honor that, too.
But as a general rule, the police department is not trying to hunt down those who are undocumented. During Thursday's meeting, several parents asked about driving.
"If they get stopped without a license, is there going to be a fine?" Christian Patiño, La Paz's director of business development, asked Fletcher, translating for one man who couldn't speak English. "Or are they going to be processed with immigration?"
Fletcher recommended that immigrants who came here illegally ride the bus, ride a bicycle or get a ride from someone with a license. If they do drive and are caught by Chattanooga police, he said, they would get a ticket for driving without a license, like anyone else.
But, he said, they would not be arrested, so long as they could show the police officer some other form of identification. That could be a work ID, a student ID, a driver's license from another country or bills.
"If you have something that is credible and authentic looking, it's going to make the transaction easier," Fletcher said. "I need to be convinced as a police officer that you will take responsibility for the summons [to court for your ticket] you're getting."
The police department's meeting with members of the Latino community comes at a time when new national immigration issues capture headlines every week. President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of aggressively deporting more of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
On Feb. 17, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued two memos calling for stronger enforcement of immigration laws. That includes hiring 10,000 more ICE officers and 5,000 more border patrol agents. It also expanded the type of immigrants whom the federal government would seek to deport, whereas Barack Obama's administration called for the government to target only immigrants who committed certain violent, gang-related or terrorism- related offenses.
Fletcher said Thursday's meeting was the result of years of groundwork for the police department, with officers and captains continually meeting with neighborhood groups. When he first arrived in 2014, Fletcher said, he had a meeting with the immigrant community in the same cafeteria.
At the time, they didn't see a looming crisis. The aggressive deportation policies used under the Obama administration, which started with George W. Bush, were about to be replaced.
"If I'm driving and I get stopped in East Ridge, Knoxville, Nashville in a stop, is it going to be the same as in Chattanooga?" Patiño asked Thursday, translating for a woman.
"I can't tell you," Fletcher said.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.