Inside This Honky-Tonk Town's Surprising Plan for Immigrants

Inside This Honky-Tonk Town's Surprising Plan for Immigrants

By Nick Fouriezos


The Rust Belt that supported Trump could benefit from increased immigration, of all things.

By Nick Fouriezos

Growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya, Somalia-born Makay Ido and her 11 siblings shared a single-room mud house, covered by a makeshift tent and tree branches to keep it in place. When she relocated to Nashville at 10 years old, having faucets became a luxury compared to the miles her parents used to walk to get drinkable water. “Coming to the United States, it was memorable, confusing, exciting,” Ido, now 23, told OZY just ahead of President Donald Trump’s executive orders restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.

While old gateway cities — Los Angeles, Miami and New York — still make up the brunt of where immigrants come in to the U.S., others in more unlikely places are jostling to become the next attractive hot spot, even after the recent uproar over Trump’s new rules. That includes Nashville, where Ido and about 30 other so-called New Americans this past fall participated in MyCity Academy, an integration effort — through several monthly meetings — that helps immigrant leaders learn about the lesser-known services the city provides to them. Participants then pass that information on to their respective communities. Launched in 2012, the initiative from the city’s mayor’s office was the first of its kind in what is now a blossoming list of programs in cities — from the central South to the Midwest and Rust Belt — that are not only encouraging immigration but counting on it. 

Now, midsize cities such as Bowling Green, Kentucky, as well as larger ones, including Atlanta and Salt Lake City, are inquiring on how to replicate Nashville’s model, says Vanessa Lazón, Nashville’s director of community inclusion. “That’s the basic appeal: the economic impact and the revitalization of a city,” says Lazón, a Peruvian immigrant herself more than decade ago.

Ironically, while much of the animus for Trump’s win stemmed from both a promise to bring back jobs and his adoption of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Midwestern states, it’s precisely immigration that some Rust Belt cities are hoping will revive stalled economies. Nashville boasts the largest Kurdish population in the world outside of Kurdistan; Louisville, two hours north, has seen about half of its population growth come from internationals in recent years, according its mayor, Greg Fischer, who recently launched the Global Louisville Action Plan to jump-start foreign-born entrepreneurship, assist job seekers and train community leaders. “Creativity is going to come from multiple perspectives — if you have a monolithic way of thinking … you’re going to be beaten competitively,” Fischer tells OZY. Many immigrant-friendly cities have clearly benefited, as has Dayton, Ohio, which launched Welcome Dayton in 2011, and, in a five-year stretch, lost 11 percent of its native population yet saw a 62 percent increase in foreign-born residents. Other locales that have seen notable increases of immigrants include the suburbs of Detroit and the city of Columbus, Ohio, according to an analysis of census data from 2009 to 2014 conducted by Governing magazine


Of course, it’s difficult to attribute the high population gains solely to initiatives aimed at attracting immigrants, when a number of other factors can play a role. Migrants tend to move in family groups, finding refuge with relatives that have already settled, and that favors cities with a longer history of friendly policy than those that are just getting off the ground. Many outreach programs are relatively small in scale and thus don’t directly touch the everyday activities of the majority of their foreign-born citizens.

And Trump’s recent executive orders to start scaling back immigration from certain countries could slow the pipeline. “Improvement is kind of now on the back burner. At this point, it’s just about maintaining [the status quo],” says Pratik Dash, who grew up in a Nashville suburb, moved to India for five years then returned to work for a Tennessee immigration advocacy group. “The public is cautious and wants to pause for a second,” says Republican Beth Harwell, Tennessee’s speaker of the house. Yet she praises Nashville, and in particular its faith-based churches, for making sure immigrants “assimilate as Americans, and not on our government rolls.”

Yet it’s clear their efforts do have significant reach. Look no further than Ido, who works for the Nashville International Center for Empowerment, helping newly immigrated mothers find jobs as well as hosting workshops for educated refugees from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. As a MyCity Academy fellow, she met officials at the water treatment plant, a police station, a metro public school. Later, she knew to contact the community outreach officer for a seminar on immigrant women starting their own child care businesses, and also invited the aforementioned school’s principal to speak at another event. When Ido learned about new opportunities, she showed her Somalian neighbors over Facebook Live, gathering audiences of around 600 people, and Snapchat, which added another 400. “I would take a picture of business cards and say, ‘Hey, if you ever need this — just shoot an email.’”

The model mimics the community-based stances taken internationally, in countries such as Canada, where citizens have, in many highly publicized cases, taken it upon themselves to ensure a smooth and easy transition for their new neighbors. There, thousands of families have agreed to essentially adopt a Syrian family — any five or more citizens can form a group to bring refugees to their community and are required to write a detailed settlement plan, or partner with a volunteer-run nonprofit such as Humanity First. Such programs have the added benefit of ensuring transplants aren’t isolated, keeping them from forming insular communities that some studies say can become economically distressed hotbeds for crime and, in some cases, radicalization. “There are immigrants here in hijabs saying they love country music,” says Dash. “They love the city infrastructure, the Titans, football.”

Along Nolensville Pike in southern Nashville, ethnic businesses have taken over in surprising, intersectional ways, highlighted by La Rancherita Supermarket, a Muslim-owned grocery store that rents out the back space to a Mexican taco and burrito shop. The Latino chef learned how to cook meat in halal fashion — “In other parts of the world,” says Dash, “a Latino wouldn’t even know what halal meant.” 

What issues and ideas in your state have caught your eye? Who are the little-known innovators we should be watching? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below, or email us at and follow us on Twitter and Instagram for regular updates from this special series.