- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - When the White House announced last week that Nashville would be the backdrop a speech by President Barack Obama on immigration, a spokesman praised the city’s efforts to welcome and integrate its fast-growing immigrant population.

Those efforts have paid off, Josh Earnest said, with Nashville becoming “a leader in job growth among cities throughout the south and across the country.”

But less than a decade ago, Nashville’s future as an example of immigrant integration looked unlikely.

The city, along with much of the nation, was in the grips of a backlash against the rapid changes brought by a surging immigrant population. The climate in Nashville was so hostile that “The Nation” magazine labeled Music City as “the white-hot nexus of the new American nativisim.”

But as opposition to immigration - specifically illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America - was growing, so was a movement to promote civility and acceptance of foreign-born residents, regardless of their legal status.

The movement coalesced around opposition to the so-called “English Only” ordinance, a proposal that would have made English the mandatory language for all government business. Known as “English First” by supporters, the ordinance was passed by the Metro Council in 2007, making Nashville the largest city in the nation to join a trend of enacting language restrictions on immigrants.

But before the measure could go into effect, then-Mayor Bill Purcell vetoed it, setting up a showdown at the ballot box two years later.

That’s when a group that included influential business, political, and education leaders; an interfaith group of clergy; and social justice and immigrant rights activists joined forces under the banner of Nashville for All of Us. Through television and radio advertisements, bumper stickers and pamphlets, they promoted a message of tolerance and warned of possible economic consequences should the measure pass.

Founding coalition member Avi Poster said the idea was that “Nashvillians are good at heart, and if they were informed and educated they would reach a rational decision, not driven by emotion. And we were proven right.”

English Only ultimately failed in a special election with 57 percent of voters opposing. But in some ways, that was only the beginning.

Nashville’s immigrant population has continued to grow rapidly, with foreign-born residents now comprising more than 10 percent of the population by most estimates. And that group is also diverse. It includes the nation’s largest population of Kurdish immigrants, comprising about 11,000, according to Vanderbilt University sociologist Katharine Donato. There is also a growing Egyptian population, and the city is becoming a hot spot for refugees from Myanmar.

Nonprofits like Conexion Americas - which helps immigrants learn English, pay taxes, and get loans to start businesses and buy homes - have continued to grow and prosper. The group’s new home, Casa Azafran, not only serves as a community center and hub for several immigrant-related nonprofits, it also will host Obama’s immigration address.

And the city has also become an active partner in the integration effort, with Mayor Karl Dean creating a New Americans Advisory Council, the My City Academy to help immigrants participate in local government, and the Mayor’s Office of New Americans, among other efforts.

David Lubell, director of the Atlanta-based Welcoming America, said Nashville was the first city to participate in this kind of concerted outreach to immigrants through the Welcoming Tennessee program. Now the mayor and other city officials speak at gatherings around the country about their experiences.

“Nashville was truly the model for a movement of cities that are doing this,” he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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