Vol. 3 / No. 3 / Fall 2005  

New Immigrants in New Places

by Anne Farris

America’s Growing “Global Interior”

Nashville, Tennessee is one of the many new destinations for immigrants to the U.S. Reaction to the city's newest residents may provide insight into similar situations across the country.

Rauf Ary, a 42-year-old Kurdish refugee who fled his native Iran thirteen years ago, points to a sign in front of his Tara Market in Nashville, Tennessee that demonstrates a new direction for this mid-size southern city. "We have fresh Halal meat," the sign reads, conveying its message in three languages: English, Spanish and Arabic. Then he glances toward his neighbors' storefront signs: Inter-Asian Market, Gye Nyame West African Restaurant, Iglesia De Jesucristo Samaria and Istanbul Restaurant. "The world comes together here," Ary says. "Nashville is the cradle for human life."

This predominantly white city known for its country music, rhinestone cowboys and fried chicken and biscuits has suddenly morphed into a new Ellis Island emblematic of a demographic revolution occurring in a thick vein of territory running through the Midwest and Southern regions of America. The nation is experiencing the largest immigrant and refugee resettlement since the Industrial Revolution, and cities like Nashville--rather than the gateway cities of the past such as New York and Los Angeles--are the new, nontraditional settling grounds where foreign-born newcomers find an abundance of jobs, housing, lower prices and, sometimes, friendlier receptions.

The growth has enriched the local culture and economy, but it has also challenged policymakers, businessmen and social service providers to successfully integrate the newcomers into a mutually beneficial community. As a result, Nashville, which has not grappled with this much racial and cultural integration since the civil rights movement fifty years ago, is exhibiting the same growing pains as an angst-ridden, awkward and sometimes troubled teenager entering adulthood. This ongoing transformation is a surprise to many because, says Garrett Harper, research director at the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, "Nashville had hardly changed from decade to decade."

Confronted with a record-breaking and unprecedented influx of foreign-born individuals and families, the city has assembled businesses, government, religious and community organizations, along with philanthropic groups, to grapple with its new role as a global destination. It has made the city and region a national leader in superlatives: Tennessee was the first state to issue drivers' licenses for documented and undocumented immigrants; Nashville is one of three American cities selected to participate in an experiment in public-private partnerships of immigrant and refugee integration primarily funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement; and the city housed one of five U.S. polling stations in America for Iraqi expatriate voters during the January 2005 Iraqi elections.

All of this has provoked an anti-immigrant backlash that is loud, proactive and downright ugly at times. Coalitions have been formed to control the growth of undocumented immigrants and talk show hosts are sounding the alarm about what they say is a "la reconquista," or "reconquest" movement of Mexican immigrants ultimately aimed at returning parts of southwest America to Mexico. The heightened debate has left the Tennessee legislature struggling with numerous pieces of legislation that both protect and limit immigrants' rights.

"Nashville now has a stake in the immigration debate in a way that it hadn't before," says Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. The city's reaction to the large and sudden growth amidst the absence of a comprehensive national immigration policy has positioned Nashville as a model of dynamic and counterintuitive change in the transforming American landscape of immigrant and refugee resettlement.

The New American Frontier Takes Shape

Nashville is a miniature version of a national phenomenon in which all of America is witnessing dramatic increases in immigrant and refugee populations. One-in-ten Americans is now foreign born, with a third arriving in the last decade. Unlike the white European immigrants who came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, today's immigrants are largely from Latin America. With increasingly relaxed national immigration standards to facilitate a growing need for inexpensive labor, workers have arrived in droves to find economic opportunities. Studies show that half of America's new workforce in the 1990s comprised immigrants, compared with only ten percent in the 1970s. Many are documented, but at least one-quarter of all foreign-born residents are here illegally, and many face persistent poverty, disenfranchisement and language barriers.

One of the most striking differences among today's immigrants and refugees is where they settle. Nashville is part of a new American frontier sometimes called the "global interior" that runs from Minnesota to Texas where immigrants and refugees have moved in unprecedented numbers since 1990. Of the nation's one hundred largest metropolitan areas, Nashville ranks first in the number of new immigrants arriving from 1991 to 1998 relative to the number of foreign-born counted there in 1990. Atlanta, Georgia is second and Louisville, Kentucky is third.

Nontraditional communities have also become a haven for Iranians and Iraqis after the Persian Gulf War and terrorist attacks, Somalis and Sudanese evading political turmoil, Russian Jews seeking religious tolerance and Bosnians escaping ethnic cleansing.

The administration of President Bill Clinton issued new directives that refugees be dispersed to all fifty states rather than concentrated in the traditional gateway communities where they had been settled in earlier times. While this policy continues to be followed, the communities receiving these newcomers have raised concerns that the influx will overtax local resources. For example, in 2002, after more than 1,000 Somalis had settled in Lewiston, Maine--population approximately 35,000--the mayor wrote an open letter to his city's new residents, asking that they discourage any more of their countrymen and women from coming to live in Lewiston because, he wrote, "Our city is maxed out financially, physically and emotionally." The Holyoke, Massachusetts city council also opposed resettling Somalis because the city didn't have enough money to educate and train them. Farmingville, a Long Island, New York community, has become a national flashpoint on immigrant issues because it has been the scene of violence and confrontation centering around a large population of Latino day laborers, primarily Mexican. (It is estimated that starting in the late 1990s, as many as 1,500 immigrant workers--looking for employment in construction, landscaping and similar fields--came to Farmingville, a village of approximately 15,000 people.)

Tennessee's foreign-born population grew by 169 percent between 1990 and 2000, and the state ranks sixth in the nation in the rate of its foreign-born population's growth. It is the nation's fourth fastest growing state in Hispanic population. Within Tennessee, most of the newcomer population flocked to Nashville in Davidson County and seven other adjacent outlying counties of middle Tennessee. Today, one-in-seven of Nashville's 570,000 residents is foreign-born.

Nashville's transformation was rapid. The foreign-born population grew by 203 percent between 1990 and 2000, almost four times as fast as the national average. Researchers assert that the rates are actually much higher because large numbers of undocumented immigrants are not counted by the census. By 2020, the Hispanic population in greater Nashville is projected to double.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Forum, said immigrants are drawn to Nashville because of its reputation for "jobs, nice people, low crime and good schools. Immigrants want the same things we do." Not only did the growth occur quickly--almost half of the foreign born arrived in Nashville after 1995--but the newcomers are vastly diversified. Latin Americans, mainly from Mexico, comprise 40 percent of the immigrants. El Enlace Latino, the Nashville Hispanic yellow pages, reaches more than 200,000 Hispanic and Latino customers in twelve counties surrounding Nashville.

But the foreign-born population in greater Nashville is not exclusively Latin American immigrants. The U.S. Department of State worked closely with three religiously affiliated charities to relocate refugees to Nashville; as a result, the city also has significant concentrations of Middle Easterners, Europeans and Africans. In fact, Nashville has one of the nation's largest groups of Kurdish refugees, approximately 7,000.

The agenda of a recent meeting of the Nashville Task Force on Refugees and Immigrants, a coalition of immigrant and refugee service organizations located in Middle Tennessee, reflected the area's diversity. The meeting included presentations on cultural resettlement issues faced by Somali refugees; a "Walk-As-One" 5K fundraising event to celebrate diversity; a Kurdish and American community project to support Tennessee soldiers serving in Iraq; and advice on helping foreign-born individuals with limited English proficiency to understand cutbacks in the state Medicaid health care program.

Unlike previous generations, today's immigrants and refugees simultaneously maintain cultural, political, economic and social ties to two or more societies. And one of their greatest challenges is integrating not only with the American culture, but also with the multiple cultures of other newcomers.

"I didn't know which city in America was bad or good to raise my family, but I had a cousin who lived in Nashville and I used his address as a contact," says Tahir Hussain, president of the Nashville Kurdish Forum, who arrived from Iraq in 1997 to work first in a plastic factory and then for the public health department. "Initially, I came with no choice but I decided to stay here for several reasons--there's a good job market and the quality of life is affordable. Three-fourths of the Kurds here own their own homes. There's less traffic and it's a religious city. That's a factor because it's a trusting community with family values and less of the Western society atmosphere. People feel safe raising a family here."

Nashville is perfectly suited to be a receiving community and a model for study, says Dan B. Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor and acting director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. "This is a Tocquevillian paradise," Cornfield says, conjuring the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote, in his 1835 landmark book, Democracy in America, about how citizens' associations played a critical role in preserving and strengthening the young United States of America. "We have a long tradition of a vibrant not-for-profit community in Tennessee," notes Cornfield. "There's a reason it's called the 'Volunteer State.'"

The greater metropolitan area has 813 private and public social service providers, 18 colleges and universities, a highly developed network of social service providers, a history of racial integration, and a shockingly low two percent unemployment rate even while the general population increased twenty percent during the 1990s.

Nashville has traditionally had a strong economic base. It is home to major corporations, including Hospital Corporation of America, the largest health care company in the world, and 200 other health care companies that manage half the nation's for-profit hospitals. Often dubbed the "Athens of the South" (it even has a life-size replica of the Parthenon in its city park) because of its historic dedication to fine arts and higher education, "Nashville was never deep south in its political culture," Cornfield declares. He has more to say about what makes Nashville both a magnet for newcomers and a rich source of information about their effects on a community, pointing out that the city's robust service economy, progressive government, highly developed community of nonprofit social service providers and advocates, renowned place in the history of the civil rights movement and pioneering efforts in racial-ethnic integration affords researchers and policymakers abundant opportunities to study and devise creative community-building policies to address the conflicts and complexities that accompany rapid globalization "Nashville is an important case in point of a city for which immigration is recent and inter-cultural group relations are complex," Cornfield notes. "The foreign-born and immigrant population is cross-heterogeneous. They face a variety of needs."

Struggling With Change

It is against this textured backdrop that Nashville--a politically "blue city" in a "red state" that has always perceived itself as more progressive, less parochial and even superior to other southern cities--embarked on a new and different challenge of becoming a multiethnic community.

Rising to the challenge has not happened without conflict and controversy. "This is a rapid-fire change," says Reginald Stuart, a journalist and Nashville native, "and southern towns don't change fast. They're being pushed and pushed."

In 2001, Stuart wrote an expose about immigrants in his hometown. "A vague disquiet hovers beneath the surface of our thoughts, causing even the most well-meaning of longtime residents to question our collective ability--and our will--to move the city up a notch, to transform it into an equitable, vibrant, multiethnic and productive 21st century community," Stuart wrote. "Are we prepared--mentally, socially, politically, educationally, economically--to transform ourselves into a community of independent citizens, or even a reasonably progressive and productive small city attuned to cross-cultural strengths, like Seattle or Portland?"

While the answer is unclear, a city still struggling with black and white racial issues is also learning how to cope with new strains of diversity. Among the first group in Nashville to feel the convergence of immigrants and refugees were local businessmen who were readily employing the droves of newcomers arriving in the city looking for jobs.

During the 1990s, the metropolitan area added 260,000 jobs, mainly due to the establishment of Nissan, Saturn and Dell manufacturing plants, and employers were overjoyed to tap into the abundant supply of immigrants and refugees--even if they didn't speak English--to work in factories, on construction sites and in restaurants and stores. Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment, America's fastest-growing specialty lodging and entertainment company, which has expanded its legendary Grand Ole Opry to include an entertainment division and a chain of hotels and resorts, including the 2,884-room Opryland Hotel in Nashville, houses its foreign-born workers at smaller, off-site hotels and provides English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) classes. One large Nashville construction company reports that one-fourth of its employees are Hispanic and a meatpacking plant near Nashville reports that 40 percent of its 1,600 employees are from foreign countries and speak 13 different languages.

"Employers were saying, 'I need workers even if they don't speak English,'" says Garrett Harper, who was research director at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce before joining the Visitors Bureau. "Employers welcomed the foreign-born and whether the employers were good entities or exploiters, they'd say that having this workforce was a good thing for Nashville. There was the idea that everyone was a winner, and the foreign-born weren't considered a great burden. Even if there wasn't always a welcoming, there also wasn't anything negative." Some business leaders even suggested that the economy and population growth would have faltered if not for the foreign-born workers who took jobs unfilled by Americans.

But the immigrant workers also brought problems with them: poverty, illegal status and language barriers all took their toll when these newcomers arrived on Nashville's doorstep. Currently, eighteen percent of the foreign-born population in Nashville lives below the federal poverty level ($17,050 for a family of four in 2000), almost double the rate for the total city population. Almost half of the foreign-born population speaks limited English. Three-fourths are not citizens and, therefore, are civically isolated and politically disenfranchised. The public school superintendent, a Cuban refugee, has increased the number of ESL classes for a student body that speaks 80 different languages. But the increases cannot keep pace with the demand, and the number of classes and teachers is woefully lacking.

The police department began hiring Hispanic officers in the 1990s and now offers an online course entitled "Intensive Survival Spanish for Law Enforcement." But the course costs $120 and provides only limited skills, and there are complaints that officers are often ineffective in working with the foreign-born community because of language barriers. In 2000, Hispanics staged a protest when two local policemen inadvertently gunned down a Korean merchant who was attempting to foil a pair of armed robbers.

City leaders, especially businessmen, realized that the city was undergoing major cultural, social and civic changes and called for help. Garrett Harper was working at the Chamber of Commerce in 2000 when he became the principal architect of a request to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement for a $375,000 grant to undertake a three-year pilot venture called "Building the New American Community (BNAC) Initiative."

Nashville was one of three cities, including Lowell, Massachusetts and Portland, Oregon chosen in 2001 to receive the grant and become an experimental integration site. The initiative stemmed from the absence of a national immigrant policy that might otherwise help governments and civil society unaccustomed to the influx of newcomers to respond in a positive manner.

The BNAC Initiative is a joint project of five national organizations: the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Urban Institute, the National Immigration Forum, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center and the Migration Policy Institute. It was primarily funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and received additional funding from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Carnegie Corporation of New York also provided support to the National Immigration Forum, the Migration Policy Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures for their work on BNAC. Says Geri Mannion, chair of the Corporation's Strengthening U.S. Democracy program, "It is important, in the Corporation's view, to develop immigrant policies aimed at integrating newcomers into our national life--not just immigration policies dealing with who can come here and who can't, and in what numbers--because helping newcomers to become full participants in our democracy will help us keep our nation vibrant and strong."

Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., says smaller cities like Nashville are discovering that public-private partnerships are vital to integrating the increasing numbers of immigrants.

Under BNAC, the Nashville New American Coalition (NNAC), an alliance of businesses, social service agencies and immigrant and refugee activist rights groups, was formed to integrate the foreign born into the political, social and economic life of the city. NNAC, sponsored by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and sixteen organizations representing immigrants and refugees, specifically identified the workplace as the key arena for integration and focused on involving the entire community--not just immigrants and refugees--in the integration process.

"Immigrant integration is not just a one-way process," says Ann Morse, program director of the Immigrant Policy Project for the National Conference of State Legislatures and BNAC program manager. "What this project proved is that integration is a complex, multifaceted, long-term process that involves an entire community including employers, schools, neighborhoods, places of worship and government agencies. Nashville was unique because of the commitment from the business community, but it reflects a national trend. Most businesses recognize we're running out of workers."

NNAC worked in four areas: business development, citizen and civic participation, research and leadership and capacity building. Nashville Metro Social Services and the Tennessee Department of Human Resources was also involved in the project. The organization's community-building efforts included immigrant voter education, recertification for foreign-trained professionals, leadership training and youth development. NNAC also provided technical and management assistance to community immigrant and refugee organizations such as Kurdish Human Rights Watch, the Somali Community Center of Nashville, the Nashville Egyptian Community, the Sudanese Humanitarian Organization, the International Lao-American Organization and Iraqi House. The city now has two Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

"Nashville leaders welcomed and organized them, then immigrant leaders continued the process," says State Representative Robert W. Briley, the Democratic Majority Floor Leader and grandson of a former Nashville mayor who spearheaded the consolidation of the Nashville and Davidson County governments in 1963. Briley represents neighborhoods in Nashville where about 20 percent of his constituents are foreign born.

NNAC placed added emphasis on reaching out to employers, who had little experience with immigrant workers, to teach them about different social and cultural practices that could affect the workplace. It also published two brochures: How Employers Can Expand and Diversify Their Workforce and Guidebook for Employers of International Workers.

NNAC also helped immigrants and refugees to navigate the complex, bureaucratic process of gaining proper credentials and licenses to pursue jobs and addressed challenges facing foreign-trained professionals in gaining U.S. certification by identifying barriers and by raising the issue with state legislators and the governor's staff.

"Nashville is the only community I know in the United States where the Chamber of Commerce and the business community have stepped up and said 'Let's make this work,'" says Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum.

Another of NNAC's initiatives, the "Board Bank," prepared refugee and immigrant leaders to participate on boards and commissions of local government and nonprofit organizations. Tahir Hussain of the National Kurdish Forum and a member of the Board Bank, now serves on the board of the local public broadcasting television station and is a graduate of Leadership Nashville, a 30-year-old initiative to train leaders.

"NNAC allowed us to build relationships with the Nashville leaders," Hussain says. "Still, if I said everything was perfect in Nashville, that would not be accurate. Sometimes we have to be aggressive and fight for our rights. But once we start talking, we are allowed to be part of the city and we feel connected to the mainstream." Hussain is also participating in a networking project called The Davidson Group, first created in 1980 to address black-white racial tensions, that matches Nashville mentors with individuals from racial and ethnic minorities.

Ongoing Debates

Tahir Hussain hopes that one day a Kurd can be elected to the city council or state legislature and it may take a high-profile political move like that to help some Nashville natives completely grasp and understand the change afoot in their city. Although immigrants and refugees have a strong and pervasive presence in Nashville working as teachers, construction workers, doctors, parking lot attendants, businessmen, landscapers and housekeepers, among other professions, the general public still does not seem to fully grasp the sheer numbers and diversity of the city's new residents even though, for example, the city has three Spanish radio stations, along with three Spanish and one Chinese newspaper.

That seemed particularly true in May 2001 when Tennessee became the first state in the nation to allow immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to receive a driver's license. With that single piece of legislation, immigrants suddenly became a water-cooler topic in Nashville because the city was instantly tagged as a welcoming haven with an open-door policy for foreigners. Efforts began almost immediately to repeal the law when grumbling increased about lengthy lines at driver test centers and immigrants using the license as formal identification.

Public reaction to the new law birthed two new vibrant, yet opposing grassroots movements--one to limit the flow of undocumented immigrants and another to help integrate newcomers into society. Each group was as zealously driven as the other and the immigrant and refugee debate in Nashville became loud and, at times, vicious.

One group voicing opposition to ongoing immigration is Tennesseans for Immigration Control, whose spokeswoman is Donna Locke. "Tennessee is on the road to bankruptcy because of massive, out-of-control immigration and because of the magnet for illegal aliens that Tennessee has made itself," says Locke, adding her view that pro-immigrant groups that help newcomers after their arrival, along with the money and resources dedicated to their assistance, attract large concentrations of immigrants to the South.

"We're getting illegals directly from their countries of origin, and we're getting illegals from other states because of the driving privileges that Tennessee offers, because of a free or nearly free health-care program that Tennessee citizens are paying to provide and because of employers willing to hire illegal aliens," Locke says. "It's a win-win deal for the employers and illegal aliens, and a losing deal for everyone else. We're subsidizing many legal immigrants as well."

The immigration control argument has been fueled by two local talk radio hosts including Phil Valentine, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress and published a book advocating conservative values with a chapter entitled, "Illegal Immigration is Dangerous to This Country." Valentine recently aired his show live from Washington, D.C. as Congress debated a law that forbids undocumented immigrants from receiving drivers' licenses and he regularly features guests like U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who was elected on an immigration-control platform.

One topic leading the talk show agenda is the recent national attention garnered by a county judge in a town near Nashville who ordered a Hispanic mother to learn English or relinquish custody of her 11-year-old daughter. The judge has since retracted his original order, but the case, centered in a largely white suburban town where the number of Hispanics has doubled in the last four years, carries all the overt ramifications of cultural misunderstandings.

The fevered pitch of the immigration debate has some established Nashville natives cringing. "It's anti-immigration to a degree that is frightening to me," says Representative Briley. "Once that debate starts, it becomes putrid real quick. There's a lot of ignorance that they are taking away jobs and influencing our heritage. It's a new form of racism," adds Briley, who at 39, is barely old enough to remember when Nashville was one of the first cities to integrate its lunch counters and high schools. "It's politically acceptable to be racist against immigrants in some parts of this city even when it's not politically acceptable to be racist against blacks, or at least not openly," he concludes.

Theresa Harmon is a spokeswoman for Tennesseans for Responsible Immigration Policies (TRIP), which she says was formed in reaction to the state's issuance of drivers' licenses, which she calls "our de facto national ID," and "a passport to legitimacy." Harmon counters the charge of racism in regard to immigrants, saying, "It doesn't have anything to do with racism. What gives anyone a right to break our laws? Meaning, what is unclear about the word 'illegal'? What we're seeing is a Balkanization of our laws. Immigrants keep their culture and language, stay in an enclave and do not assimilate. They need to fit into our culture and not make us fit into theirs. We didn't make these concessions for immigrants in the past. Why should we make them now?"

"Everyone says we need immigrant workers for the economy," Harmon continues. "If that were true, California would have the greatest economy in the world and we all see that's not the case. When do you say enough is enough? Americans are the most generous people on earth, but they want it to be up to them as far as when and where."

Harmon was reared in a white middle-class Nashville neighborhood south of the downtown where many of the foreign born have congregated and where Rauf Ary operates his market. "This looks nothing like the Nashville I grew up in," Harmon says. "All the signs are in Spanish. There is no English spoken here. We need to do something about this."

Three years ago, she moved her mother out of the neighborhood and sold her childhood home. "Despite what you hear, blacks and whites have gotten along here," she says. "But now the illegals are taking over the jobs that belong to blacks and legal Mexicans. I'm seeing white and black flight when Hispanics move into the neighborhoods."

Toward a National Policy on Immigrants?

While local groups have formed to limit immigrant migration, other coalitions were created to strengthen immigrant and refugee rights (a pattern that is being repeated in other communities, as well as nationally). One group, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC), was established to stave off a repeal to the driver's license law. "There was a backlash to the law, but it helped push our group forward. Since then, it's made us more organized," says David Lubell, who moved to Nashville from his native New York to become TIRRC state coordinator. He said the organization does not believe immigrants should be undocumented citizens and endorses a comprehensive national immigration policy to address the documentation and other needs of immigrants.

The driver's license law, however, was revised in 2004 and the new version makes Tennessee the first of two states, including Utah, with a two-tiered system of issuing two different drivers' permits--one for legal citizens and another certificate for driving for undocumented citizens. The certificate cannot be used for identification. Because in 2005 Congress passed the Real ID Act, which requires states to issue drivers' licenses only to legal citizens, other states are looking at Tennessee's system as an example of future facilitation and structure. A number of governors, however, including Vermont's Republican governor, Jim Douglas, have voiced concerns about the bureaucracy that the Real ID Act may end up creating, and the fact that it may impose an unfunded federal mandate on the states.

During this year's legislative session, Tennessee delegates have considered a slew of bills that both limit and expand immigrants' rights and benefits. Five bills, endorsed by Harmon and TRIP, would require driver's license exams to be given only in English, prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving state social services, require state employees to report undocumented workers to federal authorities, prohibit immigrants from possessing handguns and repeal the driver's certificate. Four other bills, endorsed by Lubell and TIRRC, would extend the drivers' certificate duration, give legal immigrants more access to drivers' licenses and increase funding for ESL teachers in public schools.

Tennessee's active calendar of divisive legislation dealing with immigrants exemplifies how state and local governments are struggling to chart their own course through these troubled waters in the absence of an overarching national policy on immigrant integration. Many in the general public are also concerned about these issues: a national survey of likely voters released in March 2005 showed overwhelming and intense support for bipartisan federal legislation that would allow foreigners and undocumented immigrants to obtain work permits and earn their way to citizenship.

While opposing amnesty for undocumented workers, President George W. Bush has said that immigrants and refugees should be allowed to obtain legal work permits. Building on that idea, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators, led by Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain, have introduced legislation that, among other provisions, would create a pathway to earned legalization for many undocumented immigrants.

In response to the growing awareness and demand for a unified national policy on immigrants, the Migration Policy Institute has convened a bipartisan task force of leaders and experts concerned with and affected by immigrants. "While the United States, with its immigration heritage, has long been a world leader in welcoming and integrating newcomers, there is a growing gap today between our official immigration policies and realities on the ground," the Institute's task force statement proclaims. "Immigration issues are complex with wide-ranging consequences that span individual rights, the rule of law, the way our cities and labor markets operate, American competitiveness, national security and the unique character of the United States in the world."

"Immigration issues are also controversial and little consensus exists on key policy questions," the statement continues. "Part of the explanation for this controversy and political division owes to the fact that immigration policy debates are often poorly informed, polarized and narrow. The ambition of this task force is to inform and broaden those debates."

The need for adopting national policies is clear to many, including David Lubbell of TIRRC. He says, "It's a myth that if Tennessee passes laws to prevent immigrants from coming here then the state won't be affected by this national phenomenon. To throw out all immigrants is not humane, not feasible and it's not going to happen. What we need are federal guidelines."

In the meantime, Nashville continues to seek the guidance and information it needs to address the immigrant influx in lieu of a national directive. In January 2005, a team of college and university researchers commissioned by Nashville/Davidson County mayor Bill Purcell released a year-long study to assess the city's social service capacity and to determine how to better ease the transition for Nashville's foreign-born arrivals. The mayor plans to use the study in a performance audit of the city/county Social Services Department to improve the level of services to foreign-born residents.

"The fact that the local government commissioned this study shows that they are concerned with understanding the perspective of the immigrants and the social service providers," says Dan Cornfield of Vanderbilt University, the study's principal investigator.

The study, which surveyed 64 social service organizations and conducted 16 focus groups of 137 immigrants, found that a majority of social service providers operated from outside the immigrant community and offered services mainly in English. The study also compared services to those in Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis and recommended that Nashville adopt some of the best practices found in those cities such as Charlotte's establishment of a Mayor's Advisory Board on immigrant issues.

Today, Nashville is a handbook for the nation, an index of mistakes and gains. It is certainly a much more exotic and cosmopolitan city, an eclectic collection of international food, art and entertainment. Three Hispanic-themed films were featured in this year's Nashville Film Festival. Austin Peay State University opened a Hispanic Cultural Center this year and an exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts includes the star-spangled couture of Mexican-native designer Manuel. The country music duo Big and Rich has incorporated bilingual rap into their musical repertoire.

But a poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University in 2002 indicated that negative feelings about immigrants and refugees are increasing in middle Tennessee. Hispanics are making life worse, according to forty-one percent of those surveyed, compared with twenty-eight percent in 1998. Negative reactions to Middle Easterners were reported by thirty-nine percent of respondents, while fifteen percent said the same about Asians. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed believed that U.S. immigration policy is "too open."

Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies says Nashville's reactions to the immigrant and refugee influx is an indicator of the mood in the rest of the nation. "Nationally, there's always a divide between public opinion and the elite opinion," he says, "and that's the case in Nashville and other cities. The mayor, the businessmen and the preacher of the Presbyterian church may have one reaction to their arrival, but the local union president may say another thing."

So as Nashville is forced to confront a critical crossroads in its history, the perennial question nags: Will the "Tocquevillian paradise" teeter as state budgets are pinched and social service demands increase? Can the city's economy sustain and tolerate an open-gate policy? Will it provide a blueprint for national immigration reform? Can the city become a truly diverse compendium of mixed races and cultures?

The answer is still unfolding before the eyes of those witnessing history in the making. One of them is Carolyn McKenzie, the mother of a Tennessee soldier in Iraq who was unaware of the large presence of Kurdish refugees until the January polling stations were opened in Nashville. More than 3,700 people voted there. "This is not a normal Nashville kind of thing," she said. "I think it's divine intervention. We're blessed to have them and to be able to have this opportunity."

Anne Farris is a national freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. who reports and writes about government and politics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Arkansas Gazette. She has contributed to several books, including Blood Sport, and is the author of Test Pilot, a biography of Stanley H. Kaplan. She also reports for BBC Current Affairs and other English-based film documentary companies.

 

Vol. 3 / No. 3 / Fall 2005