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Cities Have Moved Ahead to Welcome, Integrate Immigrants

Cities have been slowly taking on the work of integrating immigrants while the federal government has been dysfunctional on immigration reform.
Immigrants and their supporters demonstrate during a rally to protest New York city cuts to programs that teach English as a second language, Wednesday, March 18, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Mary Altaffer / AP

While anti-immigrant rhetoric may be making national headlines, at least 26 cities across the country are working to integrate immigrants in their communities through official offices within their municipal government, a report released Tuesday finds.

In addition, cities have created another 37 bodies – task forces, commissions and welcoming offices – to promote immigrant integration, according to the report released as part of the National Immigrant Integration Conference ongoing in New York.

Officials in cities such as Nashville, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Miami have moved past the inaction on immigration reform at the federal level and created their own approaches to immigrants living in their communities or whom they want to attract to their communities.

“While our national politics is incredibly dysfunctional, a lot of our local governments end up being oriented around problem solving and moving forward,” said Manuel Pastor, one of the authors of "Opening Minds, Opening Doors, Opening Communities: Cities Leading for Immigrant Integration."

“You can talk about deporting 11 million people, but it’s pretty hard to do. You can talk about banning Muslims, but it’s constitutionally problematic,” said Pastor, who heads the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at USC. “You can imagine all these schemes at a state level, but at a local level people find immigrants are their neighbors, they are their workers, they are an important part of the community - so the question is how do we bubble up this local cooperation and wisdom," he said.

The Americas Society/Council of the Americas and Welcoming America were collaborators on the report.

“We do have a divided country, although the divisions are more complex than people might think,” says immigration scholar Manuel Pastor. “Georgia as a state has passed some pretty anti-immigrant legislation, but the city of Atlanta has shifted in much more welcoming direction.”

The cities fall into three categories, although many have overlapping elements, the researchers said:

– Those that need to diffuse tensions arising over the arrival of newcomers such as Nashville, Tennessee.

– Those seeking to attract immigrants to revitalize their cities, such as Atlanta, which also fits in the first category.

– Those wanting to integrate long-standing immigrant communities, often expanding beyond providing services to addressing their needs in policymaking, such as San Francisco.

A federal effort to integrate Americans hasn’t existed in the country since the early part of the 20th century.

Local communities have played a role in immigrant integration throughout history through unions and businesses that needed immigrants’ skills. But the failure to have a national integration effort has given rise to the proliferation of municipal offices to integrate immigrants, the researchers said.

In November 2014, the Obama administration established the White House Task Force on New Americans and this past September created the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign, intended to better integrate immigrants and setting goals for creating more welcoming communities. However, those efforts are fledgling.

This country relies more on the labor market and non-profit groups and much of their work has been focused on refugees, said Randy Capps, director of research of U.S. programs with Migration Policy Institute. The institute conducted a 2014 study on how San Franciso; Littleton, Colorado; New York City and Seattle were responding to the challenge of increased immigrant populations.

It's unlikely this country would provide the kind of social safety net that other countries provide newcomers, but there is need for facilitating immigrants involvement in civil society and to get work, Capps said.

“We could use more federal government assistance in that area, particularly education and training for English as a Second Language assistance and naturalization. There’s not as much federal money in those areas compared to the need,” Capps said.

Not everyone agrees on such integration. GOP candidate Donald Trump has proposed expelling from the country all immigrants without legal permission to be here and allowing “the good ones” to apply to return.

He’s also proposed barring all Muslims from coming to the country temporarily in response to the fatal San Bernadino, Calif. mass shooing. Others have discussed toughening border security and measures to slow immigration to the U.S. as well as tighter interior enforcement and calls for assimilation.

While the cities cited in the report see immigrant integration as vital to their communities, many other cities have passed ordinances denying housing to the undocumented or other services and stepping up cooperation with law enforcement agreements with immigration authorities.

Some states are countering the cities' efforts. The city of Charlotte, N.C. wanted to provide immigrants with municipal identification cards, but a state-passed law has forced them to shelve that idea. In Texas, the governor threatened action against the Dallas County sheriff for her decision not to hold for immigration authorities people who had committed minor offenses and were up for release from jail.

“We do have a divided country, although the divisions are more complex than people might think,” Pastor said. “Georgia as a state has passed some pretty anti-immigrant legislation, but the city of Atlanta has shifted in much more welcoming direction.”

In 2015, Atlanta opened an Office of Immigrant Affairs to "shift the tone of civic discourse," the report states. The progressive city in a conservative state gained some 300,000 immigrants in the decade from 2000-10, a 69 percent increase. Among other things, the office recruits, trains and connects workers to fill jobs the city has identified as critical for its economy.

Such efforts are not only aimed at attracting high-skilled immigrants, although that is an interest of some cities that are seeing their industrial base wither. Pastor said many cities don't limit who their integration offices serve to those with legal status. That's because many immigrant families include those with and without legal status but also because their economic growth needs the workers in high tech as well as workers in support industries such as child care and food service.

Pastor said the efforts at the local level show there can be a civil conversation about immigration.

“We often have a fact-free conversation about immigration. The notion is immigration is flowing, when it is slowing. The notion is the undocumented population is on the rise when it is on the decline. The notion is they take away jobs ,but they add economic growth,” he said.

“The national conversation seems to be somewhat detached from the data and not as open as we find at the local level," he said. "There, there’s much more of an openness, people who are beginning to work on immigrant integration.”

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