President Obama visits Nashville
Immigration controversy discussed

Air Force One carrying the President arrives at the Nashville International Airport (Photo by Cass Teague)

Air Force One carrying the President arrives (Photo by Cass Teague)

President Barack Obama came to Nashville Tuesday to discuss his recent executive actions on immigration.

He gave brief remarks at Casa Azafran, a two-year-old community center that serves immigrants in the city’s most ethnically diverse neighborhood. Casa Azafran houses a new prekindergarten classroom, as well as the non-profit Conexion Americas, which assists Latino families with things like buying homes, starting businesses and improving their English—along with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, which lobbies for favorable immigration policy and the local, state and federal levels.

His executive directive, announced in November, would give up to five million illegal immigrants temporary legal status and work permits while shielding them from deportation. The plan does not offer a path to citizenship. Immigrants need to register, submit themselves to a background check, and pay fees and back taxes before they are eligible for the delay in deportation.

Renata Soto, who leads the Conexion Americas organization based at Casa Azafran, thanked the president for coming to Nashville and for his “bold leadership on immigration.” In her introduction for the president, Soto said the reason Obama chose Nashville to discuss immigration reform is obvious.

“It is because our president finds inspiration in the people of Nashville, who have learned from the lessons of the past and are striving to build a truly inclusive city for all—from the native-born to the immigrant neighbor, moving forward,” Soto said.

President Barack Obama answers questions during a town hall on immigration at Casa Azafran community center in Nashville, TN. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama answers questions during a town hall on immigration at Casa Azafran community center in Nashville, TN. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama, pointing to Nashville’s rising immigrant population and the city’s actions to serve them, hailed the city as a model for the conversation on immigration.

“As all of you know,” Obama said, “Nashville’s got one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country. ‘New Nashvillians’—they’re from Somalia, Nepal, Laos, Mexico, Bangladesh. And Nashville happens to be the home of the largest Kurdish community in the United States as well.

“‘They’ are ‘us.’ They work as teachers in our schools, doctors in our hospitals, police officers in our neighborhoods. They start small businesses at a faster rate than many native-born Americans. They create jobs making this city more prosperous, and a more innovative place.”

The town hall-style forum lasted about an hour and 15 minutes before Obama left around 3:30 pm to return to Air Force One at a Nashville airport. Obama exited Air Force One with Tennessee’s two Democratic congress members: U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper of Nashville and Steve Cohen of Memphis.

The president also used his Nashville speech to urge the Republican-led Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill.

Nashville is home to one of the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant populations. Twelve percent of its population is foreign-born, more than double the figure from a decade ago.

Dean, the Democratic mayor of Nashville, has piloted several city programs and initiatives to assist the city’s rising immigrant population.

That includes the creation of an Office of New Americans, which is tasked with involving immigrants in local government, expanding economic and educational opportunities and creating partnerships between local government and community organizations.

After 12 minutes of remarks, the president took questions from immigrants who were among the 75 in attendance at the invite-only event.

Watching Obama’s remarks at Casa Azafran were three high school immigrant students from Nashville public schools; Metro Director of Schools Jesse Register; Lipscomb University President Randy Lowry; Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce President Ralph Schulz; District 53 Tennessee state Rep. Jason Powell; and Nashville Metro Councilman Fabian Bedne, the first Latino elected official in the history of Metro Nashville.