Beyond Rhetoric: How U.S. Communities Welcome Immigrants

Beyond Rhetoric: How U.S. Communities Welcome Immigrants

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On January 11, 2011, Jhuma Acharya arrived in Providence, RI after a journey that began in 1992, in Bhutan, a country tucked between India and China whose government forced ethnic minorities to leave their homes. At age 15, Acharya fled Bhutan with his family to a refugee camp in Nepal, where he spent 17 years before finding an opportunity to permanently resettle. His story is not unlike so many others who come to America seeking refuge, freedom, and a community to call home.

The timing of Acharya’s arrival in the United States was fortuitous. Rhode island’s new Governor had just assumed office and the welcome mat was warming. Providence, like many states, has been impacted by one of the most significant demographic shifts in immigration in American history. In fact, Rhode Island has one of the highest proportions of foreign-born people in the U.S., ranking 13th at 12.8 percent.

This latest wave of immigration, however, is unique. In the past, newcomers made their way to traditional gateway cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, but over the last 20 years, immigrants have made their homes in new communities without a recent history of immigration; places likes Boise, Idaho; Lewiston, Maine; and Birmingham, Alabama.

Change on this scale is never easy. Communities in transition may confront a greater unease between immigrants and the communities asked to welcome newcomers whose language and culture they might not understand, creating the potential for misunderstanding and division.

Increasingly, communities are recognizing that they are most successful when they create welcoming climates. In Rhode Island, local organizations, and city and state elected officials are forging this path to foster a positive environment. The shift began literally a week before Jhuma Acharya landed in Providence when the newly elected Governor Lincoln Chafee took office and began to change the tone. Chafee joined more than 30 leaders from his state to form the Welcoming Rhode Island Statewide Advisory Committee. Comprised of a diverse cross-section of business leaders, law enforcement, community agencies, faith-based groups, and local government, the committee celebrates shared values and recognizes how new Rhode Islanders contribute to the state’s economy, enhance its existing culture, and strengthen its communities.

Increasingly, a growing movement of states and cities – from Baltimore to Dayton to Detroit – is promoting the contributions that immigrants make, and developing comprehensive efforts to attract and welcome them. Governor Chafee summed up their vision in a quote to the Boston Globe saying, "My view is that Rhode Island can grow economically by being a tolerant place to do business."

The message is spreading. In a vote passed unanimously this year by the East Providence City Council, officials adopted a welcoming resolution stating the city is “committed to continue building a neighborly and welcoming atmosphere in our community where all are welcome, accepted and appreciated.” Similar resolutions have passed in communities in Alabama, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Oregon.

These actions have a real impact. In a short period of time Acharya and his family have transitioned from new refugees to community leaders. In Nepal, Acharya earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and was a refugee camp teacher. Once in the U.S., immigrant integration volunteers helped him figure out how to secure work as a hotel housekeeper and pursue a Rhode Island teaching certificate. Acharya became a substitute teacher with the Providence Public Schools, giving back to the community that welcomed, accepted, and appreciates him.

While the nation’s political debates about immigration remain polarizing and often stigmatizing, communities and organizations at the forefront of immigrant integration are promoting economic growth by deliberately shaping receptive communities using a variety of strategies. One strategy, like the program that helped Acharya, builds meaningful connections and fosters greater understanding between newcomers and long-time residents through volunteer programs. Another strategy engages state and local leaders in proactively reaching out to local communities, such as the Welcoming Rhode Island Advisory Committee. And a third strategy focuses on ensuring that the real life, positive story of change is told. In Rhode Island, this involves a new campaign launched just last week that features ads with nine immigrants’ stories on 24 buses traveling the state and reaching about 75 percent of the population.

Local, state and federal government can also play a key role in ensuring that immigrant integration is a dynamic, two-way process in which immigrants and receiving communities come together to develop strong, cohesive communities. Government funding and resources can be directed toward supportive programs. Likewise, local institutions – from businesses to faith organizations to schools – can join with residents to create welcoming climates that benefit newcomers and established residents alike.

In Baltimore, later this month, the people who carry out these strategies will gather to share successes and explore solutions to new challenges at the fifth annual National Immigrant Integration Conference. Baltimore itself is a city that has explicitly created economic development policies based on welcoming immigrants to the region. Many of the discussions will explore successful approaches to creating more welcoming communities -- a conversation that is critical to helping America continue to make the most of the promise that immigration brings.

David Lubell  is executive director of Welcoming America.