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The Growing "Global Interior" of the United States

Can Nashville, Tennessee be an example of the right way to integrate immigrants?

December 2, 2005

Can Nashville, Tennessee be an example of the right way to integrate immigrants?

The United States 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, non-traditional settling grounds. There, 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 the area’s 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 50 years ago — is exhibiting the same growing pains as an angst-ridden, awkward and troubled teenager entering adulthood.

Tennessee’s foreign-born population grew by 169% between 1990 and 2000, and the state ranks sixth in the nation in the rate of its foreign-born population’s growth. It is also 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% between 1990 and 2000 — almost four times as fast as the U.S. average.

In fact, 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.

But the foreign-born population in greater Nashville does not exclusively consist of 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. For example, Nashville has one of the nation’s largest groups of Kurdish refugees, approximately 7,000.

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 U.S. 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,” said 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,” he said.

Nashville is perfectly suited to be a receiving community and a model for study,” said Dan B. Cornfield, a sociology professor with Vanderbilt University and acting director of the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

“This is a Tocquevillian paradise,” said Mr. Cornfield, 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 preserving and strengthening the young United States of America. “We have a long tradition of a vibrant not-for-profit community in Tennessee,” he added. “There’s a reason it’s called the ‘Volunteer State.'”

The greater Nashville Metropolitan area has 813 private and public social service providers, 18 colleges and universities, a history of racial integration and a shockingly low 2% unemployment rate — even while the general population increased 20% 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.

Currently, 18% 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 English as a Second Language 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.

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.

But this rapid transition has not been an easy one for native Tennesseans. A number of groups have formed and are voicing opposition to ongoing immigration issues. The refugee and immigration debate in Nashville is loud and, at times, vicious.

For example, in May 2001, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to allow immigrants — both documented and undocumented — to receive a driver’s license. Nashville was instantly tagged as a welcoming haven with an open-door policy for foreigners. The ensuing debate underscored that the transition for immigrants, for all its benefits, remains challenging — and often a source of outspoken conflict.

As Nashville is forced to confront a critical crossroads in its history, the perennial questions 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.

Adapted from the Fall 2005 issue of the Carnegie Reporter.