Summary: Doing Business in Metro Atlanta - The Role of Immigration Now and in the Future

By Richard André

Representatives from the public and private sectors discussed how government and business can work together to integrate immigrant residents to build a strong workforce.


  • Kasim Reed, Mayor, City of Atlanta
  • Philip I. Kent, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.
  • Thomas Negri, Former Managing Director, Loews Vanderbilt Hotel; Interim Executive Director, Nashville Metro Human Relations Commission
  • Ronnie Steine, At-Large Council Member, Metro Government of Nashville & Davidson County


Participants at an October 22 AS/COA public luncheon in Atlanta discussed how the public and private sectors can work together to integrate immigrant residents to build a strong workforce and maximize their socioeconomic contributions. Leaders from Nashville also shared their experience of fighting against restrictive legislation and becoming a welcoming city for immigrants, as well as best practices to be used in other cities. The lunch was part of AS/COA’s Immigration and Integration Initiative, which is working in new immigrant gateway cities to raise public awareness of the role immigrants play in local economies and nationally. The event was supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and One Region Atlanta, an initiative of Community Foundation.

Making Atlanta a Welcoming City

Like other major metropolitan areas in the South, Atlanta’s foreign-born population grew significantly over the past two decades, from 4 percent in 1990 to 13.5 percent in 2010—slightly higher than the national average. In his opening remarks, Mayor Kasim Reed announced his commitment to embracing Atlanta’s changing demographics and making the city welcoming to current and future immigrants, especially in the absence of federal immigration reform. Atlanta ranks number two in job growth in the United States, and Reed explained that in order to maintain its economic competitiveness and vitality, the city must attract and maintain talented individuals, regardless of their background.

However, he admitted that “being forward-leaning on immigration is a little tougher in the South.” Speaking to a room of immigrant advocates, business leaders, and government officials from Atlanta and other gateway cities, Reed said that in the face of Georgia’s restrictive immigration legislation, HB 87, leaders who want to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform must make their voices heard. The mayor concluded by formally signing onto Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties Initiative, joining 21other cities around the country that acknowledge the critical role immigrants play and have committed to creating a welcoming environment.

Immigrants and Atlanta’s Workforce

Echoing Reed’s message, CEO of Turner Broadcasting Systems Phillip Kent said that through the immigration debate, Atlanta will decide how to represent itself to competitor cities in the United States and internationally. “In every situation that involves social change and human rights, we move forward together and we insist on fairness, creating opportunity and hold our self to a higher standard,” Kent said. “That’s the story of this country, and it’s certainly been the story of the great city of Atlanta.”

He also argued that companies that embrace a culturally diverse workforce are more competitive. According to Kent, the Turner Broadcasting System’s international workforce was critical to helping the company extend its reach to over 100 networks across the globe. “In some parts of our business, foreign-born people have a distinct advantage,” Kent said, citing CNN as an example of a consumer-based brand that has become a market leader largely due to its internationally-minded immigrant workforce.

Lessons from Nashville’s Turnaround

Two leaders shared their experience of pushing for inclusive policies in Nashville, Tennessee. Ronnie Steine, at-large council member of the Nashville Metropolitan City Council, and Thomas Negri, former managing director of Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, were both instrumental in defeating a proposed 2009 English-only city council ordinance. The bill would have required all government business to be conducted in English, thereby marginalizing the city’s newly-arrived Latino and Kurdish populations.

Steine and Negri organized “Nashville for All of Us,” a grassroots coalition that brought together the public and private sectors, the faith community, unions, and civil society to reject the proposal and to promote inclusive policies. After the ordinance was voted down in a special election, the coalition maintained its momentum by advocating for affordable housing projects for immigrants, law enforcement outreach to immigrant neighborhoods, and in-state tuition for undocumented students. Many of these initiatives have since become law and cemented Nashville’s reputation as a welcoming city.

With the success of Nashville for All of Us, the Nashville’s welcoming policies have been far-reaching. The first Latino was elected to a district council seat, followed by the appointment of the first Latina to a countywide office. Last year, Nashville’s sheriff decided last year not to renew his 287(g) memorandum, an immigration enforcement agreement, with the federal government. The city has experienced unprecedented economic growth and cultural diversity that lead the New York Times to name Nashville the new “it” city earlier this year.