New report provides first look at quality of life, improving services for Nashville’s immigrant communities

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Nashville has experienced a three-fold increase
in foreign-born residents since 1990 – from 12,662 to 39,596. However,
80 percent of agencies providing social services to these populations
are located outside of immigrant communities, and the majority of
agencies experience language barriers with the people they serve,
according to a new report.

These are just some of the
findings of the Immigrant Community Assessment, a yearlong study
looking at how immigrants are adjusting and contributing to life in
Nashville and Davidson County. Researchers from Vanderbilt University,
Meharry Medical College and Tennessee State University joined forces to
conduct the project under contract with Metro Government.

officials commissioned the report to determine how to better ease the
transition for Nashville’s newest foreign-born residents. The report
includes recommendations for better incorporating immigrants into local
communities. The recommendations are based on seven themes that emerged
during the researchers’ analysis of Census data, surveys of directors
at public and private social service agencies and community
organizations, focus groups with immigrants and interviews with experts
in other Southern cities on best practices for responding to
immigrants’ needs.

The study, which is posted online at, will be formally presented to Mayor Bill Purcell later this month.

The growth of the diversifying population of immigrants and refugees
in Nashville strengthens and enriches local culture and economy, said
Dan Cornfield, Vanderbilt professor of sociology, acting director of
the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies and principal
investigator for the Immigrant Community Assessment.

“At the same time, it challenges local policymakers, service
providers and employers to ensure that Nashville attains a mutually
beneficial incorporation of immigrants and refugees into the
community,” Cornfield said.

“We identify these
challenges in a wide range of policy areas, including education,
employment, health, housing and safety, and provide several policy
recommendations for addressing them,” Cornfield added.

Many of Nashville’s immigrants come from Africa, Asia and Latin
America. Of all foreign-born Nashville residents in 2000, two-thirds
had arrived in the United States during the 1990s, three-fourths were
not citizens and 61 percent were born in Mexico or Central America.

Members of the research team – which included sociologists,
psychologists, an education researcher, a health services researcher
and a lawyer-social worker – conducted 16 confidential focus groups in
seven languages with a total of 137 immigrants of the ethnic
backgrounds specified in Metro’s contract for the study – Arabic,
Hispanic, Kurdish, Laotian, Somali and Vietnamese.

The research team also conducted face-to-face, hour-long interviews
with a scientific, random sample of 64 directors of private and public
social service agencies and community organizations.

Telephone interviews with 19 service providers and members of
immigrant communities in cities of comparable size to Nashville –
Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Memphis – yielded best practices in
serving immigrants’ needs. Among these best practices were
multi-service organizations that address a wide range of immigrants’
and refugees’ needs in Atlanta and Charlotte, an Atlanta refugee and
immigrant training and employment program, and the Mayor’s
International Cabinet – an advisory board to the mayor of Charlotte
that is comprised of international business people, local organizations
and representatives of the foreign-born community.

During focus groups, Nashville’s immigrants commented favorably
about teachers, public schools and employment opportunities and felt
that Nashville was a safe city. Education, employment, health, housing
and safety are the issues immigrants and refugees discussed with the
greatest frequency during the focus groups.

The research team’s recommendations emphasize addressing these
oft-mentioned issues. The seven recommendations outlined in the report

* Increase countywide community familiarity with cultural traditions
and contributions of immigrants and refugees in Nashville – More than
80 percent of social service agency directors indicated language
barriers between staff and their clients and patients and difficulty in
finding interpreters. Immigrants report experiencing adverse
interpersonal interactions at work, in school and in seeking social
services and housing. The researchers recommend developing
instructional materials and opportunities for service providers and
supporting more inter-cultural events, which will disseminate
information about the cultural traditions and local contributions of
Nashville’s immigrants.

* Increase availability and broaden the curricula of
English-language instruction and instruction on daily life in the
United States – Census data shows Nashville’s immigrants have varying
abilities to communicate in English. Roughly one-third of the city’s
foreign-born residents, especially those who are ages 18-64, are what
the U.S. Census Bureau terms “linguistically isolated” – they live in
households where no members over the age of 14 speaks English “very
well.” Increased English-language instruction opportunities during
non-working hours, instruction at proficiency levels higher than the
elementary level, more instruction on daily life routines in the United
States, and more safe and affordable childcare services that allow
adult students to attend language classes are needed, according to the

* Encourage development of community-based, multi-service,
multi-ethnic social service agencies in areas where immigrants and
refugees tend to reside – The study indicates that 80 percent of 813
public and private social service providers in Nashville are located
outside of the Southeast quadrant of Nashville – where almost 60
percent of Nashville’s foreign-born residents live.

* Increase immigrants’ and refugees’ access to employment, housing
and service providers – Language barriers and financial barriers hinder
accessibility of employment, housing and vital services to immigrants.
The poverty rate of Nashville’s non-citizen foreign-born residents is
23 percent, compared to 12 percent for Nashville natives. More than 60
percent of survey respondents stated that their social service agencies
promote services by only communicating in English. Among the
recommendations are increasing the supply of bilingual advocates –
counselors, lawyers and social workers who can advocate on behalf on
non-English speakers during specific interactions related to adult
education, children’s education, employment, health, housing and
safety. A second recommendation is to increase the supply of bilingual
emergency service receptionists and providers.

* Streamline the credentialing of immigrants and refugees for
employment in diverse sectors of the Nashville economy –
Underemployment of foreign-born workers – employment in a job for which
a worker is overqualified – is attributed to communication gaps in
presenting employment credentials that a worker had earned in his or
her homeland. The researchers suggest increasing bilingual advocates
for employment-related issues and encouraging collaboration among
employers, labor unions, employment services, professional
associations, occupational licensing agencies, education providers and
resettlement agencies to better interpret foreign employment

* Develop public arenas for immigrants and refugees to regularly
express their interests and needs – The researchers suggest
establishing an ongoing forum – similar to the Mayor’s International
Cabinet in Charlotte, N.C. -that will provide an opportunity for
immigrants to share their interests and for service providers to gather
important information about global immigration in the city.

* Strengthen countywide capacity to monitor, plan, coordinate and
address the widest possible range of needs of immigrants and refugees –
Currently there is only informal coordination between social service
agencies with staff learning about other agencies’ services through
networking and word of mouth. The researchers suggest establishing an
ongoing, countywide organization dedicated to immigrant and refugee
affairs in order to monitor social services needs and plan and
coordinate efforts.

Media contact: Princine Lewis, (615) 322-NEWS

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