Immigrants and Refugees in Middle Tennessee

The phenomenal growth of Tennessee’s foreign-born population, and the opportunities and challenges this has presented for newcomers and the state, has brought Tennessee into the national spotlight in recent years. During the 1990s, the foreign-born population in Nashville tripled. Meanwhile, the number of foreign-born people statewide grew by 169%, making our state a larger magnet for immigrants, by percentage, than larger cities like New York and Los Angeles. In the year 2000, 45% of Nashville’s foreign-born residents had been in the United States less than five years. Catholic Charities of Tennessee resettled 648 refugees in Middle TN in 2010 alone.

Many of these newcomers to the state come fleeing war, famine and persecution in Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Refugees are “resettled” by federally-funded agencies that help them find homes and jobs. The majority of immigrants, however, still arrive on their own from Mexico and Central America. All have sought sanctuary and prosperity, and while many have found both, it has not been easy and may not be for some time.

Immigration and integration for our new neighbors can be difficult. As refugees arrive in Middle Tennessee, resettlement agencies prepare an apartment and furnish it with donations and other items the families may need, from pots and pans to the living room sofa. When federal funding for assistance dries up, refugees must still navigate the complex path to integration despite language barriers, misinformation and systems unaccustomed to meeting their needs. Many rely on assistance from nonprofit refugee service and support groups who report that they are overwhelmed by demand. Nonprofits in Middle Tennessee work tirelessly to ensure that the best service available is provided to our new next-door neighbors, but this task becomes difficult as numbers of refugees grow, and agencies work to help them with limited agency budgets and resources.

No public funding exists to help channel undocumented immigrants toward legal residency or to teach them local customs and laws. Hispanic immigrants have found help through several nonprofit organizations. This influx of Latinos might mean that businesses now post “Se habla Español” signs in their windows, but access to health care, education, fair wages and safe housing can be limited.

A recent Immigrant Community Assessment, conducted by the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, found that immigrants and refugees are making important economic and social contributions to our Middle Tennessee communities, and that they additionally contribute to the country through military service.

Still, immigrants to our state face unique challenges. Non-citizen, foreign-born residents of Nashville are two times more likely than Nashville natives to be poor. One-third of Nashville’s foreign-born residents, especially those who are ages 18-64, are found to be “linguistically isolated,” meaning they live in households where no member over the age of 14 speaks English “very well.” The US Census Project additionally found that almost 60% of Nashville’s foreign-born residents live within the southeast quadrant of the city, along Nolensville and Murfreesboro Roads; 80% of public and private social service providers in Nashville are located outside of the southeast quadrant. This means immigrants and refugees in need of important services face difficulties in access to and communication with social service providers.

Increased immigration means changes in the classroom, as well, as teaching immigrant children has become a challenge for some local schools. "Teaching is not a political thing. As a teacher, we teach the children who sit in front us," said Jan Lanier, the state's English as a Second Language coordinator in a recent interview with The Tennessean. “On any given day, an immigrant family walks into Metro's English Language Learners center off Bransford Avenue, a frightened child or two in tow. They're usually Spanish speakers — 5,600 of Metro's 78,000 enrolled students are from Mexico or El Salvador — but frequently they're refugees from Iraq, Egypt or Somalia. They're from 120 countries, speaking more than 95 languages.”

Based on findings from the Immigrant Community Assessment, Davidson County Government developed several recommendations for strengthening the incorporation of immigrants and refugees. They include encouraging the development of community-based social service agencies in areas where immigrants and refugees tend to reside; increasing countywide and community familiarity with the cultural traditions and contributions of immigrants and refugees in Nashville; developing public arenas for immigrants and refugees to express regularly their interests and needs; and increasing the accessibility of employment, housing, and service providers to immigrants and refugees.

The Nashville International Center for Empowerment is a local non-profit dedicated to empowering refugees and immigrants of Middle Tennessee through education plans and social services. Their goal is to create economic opportunity for immigrants in the area and help to create opportunities for upward social mobility. They offer their programs to legal permanent residents with refugee, ayslee, or immigrant status. They help them learn to read, write, and speak English as well as offer employment and resettlement services.  You can learn more about the International Center for Empowerment here.


The Numbers:

  • Foreign-born, non-citizen Nashville residents are twice as likely as Nashville natives to be poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Between 1996 and 1997, the greatest number of refugees to arrive in Tennessee came from Bosnia (1,485). The second largest number of arrivals came from Somalia (1,402) and from among the Kurdish population in Iraq (548). These numbers do not include those who arrived here from other states.
  • State Department figures as of 2009 ranked Nashville 28th in the nation for refugee resettlement. The influx gave Nashville the largest Kurdish community in the nation in 2009, with at least 10,000, as those resettled from Iraq brought over relatives.
  • In 2010 English is a second language for 22% of Metro Nashville students. It was 15% in 2005.
  • In 2010 78% of Metro's English Language Learners speak, read and write proficiently, well over the 62% state target. Nearly 19% exited special programs on time, compared with the 16% state target.
  • In 2000, Nashville’s foreign-born residents comprised 7% of Nashville’s total population of some 570,000 residents.
  • Two-thirds of Nashville’s foreign-born residents originated in Latin America, and some 5% of Nashville residents—native and foreign-born—identified themselves to the Census as “Hispanic.”
  • Over 80% of service providers responding to a Metro Nashville survey indicated the presence of language barriers between staff and their clients and patients that resulted from the absence of translators and interpreters and the inability of staff and their clients and patients to communicate with one another in the same language. Approximately 85% of the surveyed directors indicated that their agencies faced difficulties in gaining access to interpreters.



How You Can Help:

  • Volunteer as a translator with a resettlement or social service agency. Volunteer to teach English or social adjustment skills at a local refugee-serving agency.
  • Donate food or clothing to a nonprofit serving immigrants and refugees. Donate ESL textbooks to a nonprofit teaching English to non-native speakers.
  • Support nonprofits that provide long-term financial and social support to immigrants and refugees adjusting to life in Middle Tennessee.
  • Provide funding for staff and volunteers to lead English-language training classes.
  • Provide funding for staff and volunteers to lead free classes on integration issues.
  • Provide funding for translators (social and credentialed translators).
  • Provide funding for immigrant and refugee employment programs.
  • Support nonprofits that provide emergency medical services to immigrants.
  • Support nonprofits that provide financial support for immigrants to find housing (deposits, rental assistance, utilities, down payment assistance, and homeownership classes).
  • Support a public awareness campaign to create a welcoming community for all immigrants and refugees.
  • Fund bilingual phone help lines.


More Stories and Resources:

The Metropolitan Government of Nashville Immigrant Community Assessment

Interactive immigration map of The United States

Next Door Neighbors – Nashville Public Television

Nashville was one of three cities in the study: Building the New American Community: Newcomer Integration and Inclusion Experiences in Non-Traditional Gateway Cities, Migration Policy Institute, Sponsored by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2004.

The New Latino South: The Context and Consequences of Rapid Population Growth, Pew Hispanic Center, 2005

Updated 11/6/14