With the Nashville Chamber of Commerce in a leading role, Nashville was one of three “non-traditional gateway cities” along with Portland (OR) and Lowell (MA) chosen for the 2001 pilot project funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) called “Building the New American Community, A Collaborative Project on Integration (BNAC).” These three sites were determined to be in the “beginning phases of a demographic transformation” due to increases in refugee resettlement and the arrival of legal and illegal immigrants.
As explained in the project’s final report authored by the Soros funded Migration Policy Institute (MPI):
Nashville exemplifies characteristics typically associated with new immigrant gateway cities in the United States: strong economic growth coupled with rapid foreign-born population increases from a very tiny base of refugees and immigrants who resided in the city in 1990.
Core principles of the pilot project included building coalitions, refugee and immigrant leadership, and civic engagement, including:
learning about the American electoral system and the importance of voting, but also participating as partners with public agencies in the coalitions. In practical terms, refugee and immigrant organizations played a direct role in crafting policies and programs that directly influence their communities as well as the receiving community.
Collaborators in the BNAC pilot included the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Southeast Asia Resource Center, and the Soros funded Migration Policy Institute, National Immigration Forum, and the Urban Institute.
The ORR grant money, available only to organizations serving refugees, was intended to support integration of new Americans through systemic change using whatever strategies were defined in each location. Lavinia Limon, ORR’s Director at the time, “believed in the need to support newcomer integration at the local level and to build the capacity of refugee organizations” and was considered a driving force behind the pilot project.
After leaving ORR, Limon worked briefly at the Center for New American Communities, a project of the Soros funded National Immigration Forum until she was named executive director of U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a position she still holds.
The coalitions required to be formed in each pilot site excluded illegal immigrants. However, the final report noted that “their presence and the needs of their families realistically cannot be set apart from an effort to achieve cohesive communities.”
Even though the grant encouraged faith-based organizations to be included in the coalition, Nashville’s African-American community was kept at arm’s length by the New American Coalition despite having experienced many of the same concerns such as employment training, housing and quality of schools, as the refugee/immigrant coalition members.
The Nashville Chamber of Commerce was recognized for taking a leading role in the city’s demonstration program:
The Nashville Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with 16 organizations representing refugee/immigrant and receiving community organizations, sponsored the Nashville New American Coalition. The founding partners from the refugee/immigrant community were Iraqi House, Kurdish Human Rights Watch, Somali Community Center, International Lao-American Organization, Encuentro Latino, Catholic Charities, and the League of United Latin American Citizens. From the receiving community, the founding organizations included the Metro Nashville Schools Adult ESL, Metro Social Services/Refugee Services, the Nashville Task Force on Refugees and Immigrants, Opry Mills, Tennessee Department of Human Resources/Refugee Programs, Tennessee State University, United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, and Woodbine Community Organization.
On page 34 of the final report, the Nashville New American Coalition was recognized for arranging trainings “designed to prepare refugees and immigrants to serve on non-profit and/or government governing bodies (e.g., boards and commissions)…The trainings also encouraged participants to play an active role in ensuring that government agencies and non-profit organizations serve newcomer communities in culturally- and linguistically-appropriate ways.”
The Nashville Chamber of Commerce was credited with emphasizing workforce development and outreach to employers as a central feature of the Nashville Coalition’s community action plan.” The final report highlighted two Coalition projects; foreign credential recognition and production of a brochure titled How Employers Can Expand and Diversify Their Workforce. The brochure subsequently matured into the Guidebook for Employers of International Workers, providing employers information about “employment documentation requirements, the contributions of refugees/immigrants to the workforce, communication suggestions, and cultural issues” such as a sample Islamic prayer schedule and instruction in how to provide “appropriate religious accommodations.”
Today the Nashville Chamber collaborates with the Partnership for a New American Economy using the basic premise that immigrants will do the work Americans won’t and that the work ethic and perceived business ambitions of legal and illegal immigrants are necessary to grow the economy and create jobs for Americans.