Mandel Ngan/AFP Photo, Getty Images

When President Obama has traveled the country to give big speeches on immigration reform, he's gone to places such as Las Vegas, Nevada, and El Paso, Texas—cities close to the southern border and home to deep-rooted immigrant communities.

But on Tuesday, he’s going to Nashville, Tennessee, famous for the Grand Ole Opry and down-home southern cooking, to build support for his executive action that could shield millions of immigrants from deportation.

Crooning about his immigration program in The Music City might seem like a nonsensical idea, but it's not.

Appearing in a red state is an opportunity for Obama to defend his immigration plan in enemy territory and reframe immigration as a bipartisan issue after his unilateral action triggered an intense fight with Republicans in Congress, Democrats say.

“From a broad national optics standpoint, going to the generally red south might might be a message the president is trying to send that this is a not a red state and blue state issue," said Tennessee-based Democratic media consultant John Rowley.


Both of Tennessee's senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, are Republicans and voted for the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill last year. But each has criticized Obama for bypassing Congress to address the issue.

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent of Dailey & Vincent perform at The Grand Ole Opry at Ryman Auditorium on November 11, 2014 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)


Beyond that, Nashville's immigrant population has experienced explosive growth for more than a decade, part of a demographic shift that's changing the face of the South. The influx of newly arrived immigrants sparked some nativist reaction during the 2000s, but now advocates highlight Nashville as a model of integration.

Renata Soto is a co-founder of Casa Azafrán, the two-year-old immigrant community center where Obama will speak. She is in "disbelief" the president is coming to her adopted hometown but said it sends an important message.

“We have a thriving Latino community," Soto said in an interview. "It’s a great recognition from the president that the conversation is not just one to be had in the border states. It’s an issue that the fundamentally affects every place in the United States.”


Ten years ago, only 2.5 percent of Nashville's population was foreign-born. Immigrants flocked to Nashville and other Southeastern cities during the 1990s and 2000s, attracted by service industry and construction jobs during the housing boom with higher wages and a lower cost of living. Now 12 percent of Nashvillians were born outside the U.S., according to Census figures.

People from Latin America and Asia fueled the surge, but Nashville also has a sizable refugee resettlement program. It has the largest population of Iraqi Kurds of any U.S. city.

Tennessee is home to 130,000 undocumented immigrants, 40,000 of whom are newly eligible for deportation relief under Obama's action.


Even though it's known as a liberal enclave, Nashville wasn't always so friendly to immigrants. The Metropolitan Council passed a bill in 2007 that would have made English the city's official language, but then-Mayor Bill Purcell (D) vetoed it. Supporters forced a ballot referendum in 2009, but 57 percent of voters rejected the English-only measure.

David Lubell, an immigrant-rights advocate formerly based in Tennessee, described that vote as a turning point.

Nashville did not have "an easy time" in dealing with newcomers, "but it came to terms with growing diversity" said Lubell, the founder of the non-profit group Welcoming America.


Martin Cadreux, of Albany, New York, a paid employee of the Woodbine Community Center, in Nashville, Tennessee, teaches English to immigrants on April 19, 2006. (Randy Janoski/MCT via Getty Images)

Soon after, Mayor Karl Dean (D) formed an immigrant advisory council that helped city officials hear the concerns of immigrant communities, such as a controversial federal enforcement program called 287(g). He also launched the MyCity Academy, which educates immigrants on how local governments work. In September, he opened an Office of New Americans to help new immigrants to seek jobs and education.


President Obama can point to Nashville as an example of how accepting immigrants can go hand in hand with a vibrant local economy. The city was ranked sixth in the nation for job growth last year.

“Despite the polarization during the recession, immigrants in the area have contributed to a thriving economy, especially in the restaurant, retail and higher education sectors of the Nashville economy," said Daniel Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies immigrant integration in American cities.

Casa Azafrán, where Obama will speak, houses 10 groups that provide English education, healthcare, and legal aid to Latino immigrants. The federal government gave a $2.1 million to one of those groups, Conexión América, to start the center, according to Soto.


The White House recently reached out to Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) about traveling to Nashville, and he recommended that the president deliver his speech from the community center.

"It's appropriate that President Obama comes and sees federal government dollars at work in developing the international district of Nashville," Soto said.

Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.