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15 Immigrant-Friendly Cities

Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor


The U.S. is a country built on immigration, but it is also a federation of states with different identities, populations and economies. It stands to reason that attitudes toward immigrants would differ as well. To some, immigrants provide meaningful labor. To others, immigrants take jobs from natural-born citizens.

It is in this spirit that the National League of Cities, an organization that brings together local governments and representatives from 19,000 U.S. cities, developed the Municipal Action for Immigrant Integration project. Its primary goal, as defined in its latest report, is “to promote civic engagement and naturalization among immigrant communities in the cities and towns across the U.S.”

To do this, the NLC looked at best practices in cities’ services for immigrants by visiting  and communicating with mayors and city officials in every state. Researchers evaluated programs targeted at four areas: public safety, immigrant outreach, civic engagement and citizenship, and city services.

The 20 cities highlighted in the report vary in size, location, and character, but all of them can claim to be most innovative in ensuring that their immigrant communities are integrated into the local society. Here we look at some of the most compelling programs in 15 of those cities, though the cities excluded from this list (Houston; San Francisco; Skokie, Ill.; Washington, D.C.; Santa Clara County, Calif.) deserve all the same accolades for their efforts to integrate their immigrant populations.

Photo Credit: video4net

Fort Wayne, Ind.


With more than 15,000 people, or 6% of the population of Fort Wayne, Ind., born outside the U.S., only about a third of whom are naturalized citizens – the city government actually created a new position to address the mostly-Hispanic immigrant community.

In 2009, the Hispanic and Immigrant Liaison began providing information and support for community development programs that affect Latinos. Bilingual TV ads raise awareness of language and naturalization services available in Fort Wayne, and training for local law enforcement and other officials helped address higher incidences of abuse among children of immigrants.

Photo Credit: Northeast Indiana Regional Services

Austin, Texas


Austin is Texas’s fourth-largest city, in a border state that has always seen a large number of immigrants, mostly from Mexico. The population of more than 785,000 includes almost 150,000, or 19%, born in other countries. Only 22% of the foreign-born population are naturalized U.S. citizens.

Austin’s immigrant outreach efforts concentrate on removing the Spanish language barrier between city officials, specifically police officers, and the Latino population, which has doubled in Austin since 1995. Recognizing the increasing proportion of immigrants from Asia, the city also hired an Asian Outreach Program Liaison to perform the same role with the Vietnamese community.

Photo Credit: andinarvaez

Princeton, N.J.


Princeton is a small community, which is perhaps exactly what has allowed it to experiment with new ways to promote immigrant integration. Out of the city’s 4,065 immigrants, only 1,618 have become naturalized U.S. citizens, and officials have made addressing the identification and status of them and the non-naturalized immigrants a priority.

Beginning in May 2010, all residents – regardless of immigration status – could get the Princeton Community ID Card, which is not given by an official city agency but is recognized by law enforcement and hospital officials to serve as identification and an expression of medical preferences.

The card also allows access to social services like post offices, swimming pools, public and private schools, as well as some financial services, for groups like undocumented immigrants who were previously excluded from these services.

Photo Credit: Linda

Seattle


Seattle is a little different in terms of the composition of its immigrant community. It has more than 100,000 immigrants (17.7% of the state’s population): 52% come from Asia, 14% from Europe and Latin America and 12% from Africa.

The Seattle police department has addressed this diversity by supporting 10 demographic advisory councils, which “aim to connect marginalized minority communities to the police department to ensure that the enforcement of law is just, fair, informed, and that all challenging issues, such as racial profiling, are discussed.”

Through these efforts, law enforcement officials create trust and confidence with Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs and Arabs, East Africans, Filipinos, Koreans, Native Americans, Southeast Asians and the gay and lesbian community.

Photo Credit: dhrerra_96

El Paso, Texas


El Paso is a true border town, where 80% of the city’s total population is of Hispanic or Latino origin. Many immigrants (about half the immigrant population) came and established themselves as U.S. citizens. At the same time, new immigrants pass through regularly on their way to other destinations in the U.S.

El Paso is recognized for its extensive efforts at helping immigrants who are victims of crime or abuse. As the NLC report states, “Immigrants too often become victims of domestic abuse, feeling powerless to seek help or protection. … Victims may be afraid to come forward because they are undocumented and may be deported. Fortunately, they still have many rights.”

The city’s Victim Services Unit ensures that those rights are honored, such as the one that says any victim of any crime has the right not to disclose their immigration status to police or shelters. Non-citizens are also allowed to get a restraining order and access emergency medical care in El Paso, as officials value the safety of those citizens above their immigration status.

Photo Credit: Paul Garland

Durham, N.C.


In Durham, five-time mayor William Bell has made it a priority to serve the city’s fast-growing immigrant community. From 3.8% in 1990 to 14.6% estimated for 2008, Durham’s immigrant community is mostly Latin American, and almost 80% of immigrants are not naturalized U.S. citizens.

In 2002 the city kicked off the Mayor’s Hispanic Latino Initiative, which “seeks to reduce the high number of violent crimes against Hispanics by building a stronger partnership among the Hispanic community, the city government and police.” The NLC report goes on to note the program’s notable successes. “As the relationship between the police and the Hispanic community was strengthened, there was a reported decrease of crimes against Hispanics.”

Beyond crime, the NLC highlights increases in Spanish-language employees and police officers, Spanish-language employment fairs and a number of cultural events.

Photo Credit: Matt Phillips

New York City


It is often said that New York City, and especially the borough of Queens, is the most diverse place in the U.S. While some might dispute this, it’s certain that there are more immigrants in New York than in any other city in the country: More than 3 million of the city’s 8.3 million people, or 37%, are foreign-born.

Integration can be difficult in such a huge and diverse population, so the city created the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to advise the government on how to best integrate immigrant communities. The office works with immigrants and community organizations, and has accomplished some notable goals, such as requiring pharmacies to provide free oral interpretation and translation of vital documents and medication labels, while increasing access to vital city and legal services.

Photo Credit: Randy Lemoine

Louisville, Ky.


Louisville may not have the biggest immigrant community in the U.S., but the 9,650 foreign-born residents are diverse in their countries of origin: 34% come from Asia, 29% from Latin America, 27% from Europe and 8% from Africa.

The city government realized that information is a key part of integration, and established the Office of International Affairs to serve as a clearinghouse for new residents. The city provides services like a “community language bank,” translators and interpreters, English as a second language classes and a number of professional and resettlement services.

The city also hosts a two-day event called WorldFest that features food and entertainment from different communities, as well as a mass naturalization ceremony where hundreds of residents take their oath of citizenship.

Photo Credit: Monique Wingard

Philadelphia


Philadelphia has had several waves of immigration from different parts of the world, which have led to a foreign-born population of 156,680, or 11% of the city’s population. In the ‘80s, immigrants came mostly from Africa; in the ’90s, they were from Africa and the Caribbean. The biggest share of the immigrant community is Asian, but the number of recent arrivals, refugees and people seeking asylum from troubled countries led the city to create the Mayor Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs.

The commission focuses on cultural exchanges and advocacy programs as a way for Philadelphians to learn more about their traditions and promote the city’s overall diversity. In 2010 events focused on Senegalese culture, providing housing services for immigrants and an exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo focusing on certain African regions with immigrants in Philadelphia.

Photo Credit: Kevin Burkett

Columbus, Ohio


It’s not surprising that Columbus, named for the explorer who first made Europeans aware of the continent on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, would be a pioneer in immigrant assimilation. With 68,857 foreign-born residents (out of 729,369), the city has a compelling reason to do so regardless of its name.

In office since 2000, Mayor Michael B. Coleman began the New American Initiative in 2002 to address the challenges faced by new immigrants. Focusing on language, housing, and health care, the initiative has partnered with realtors, the local housing authority, community organizations, and even mortgage and financial companies that can provide financial services for Muslims that comply with Islamic Sharia law.

Looking forward, the program’s health goals will target increasing incidences of sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, diabetes and certain cancers in the immigrant community.

Photo Credit: kla4067

Chattanooga, Tenn.


Chattanooga, Tenn. has a small immigrant population – only 7,226 people, or 4.5% of the population – but it is one that has grown nearly three-fold in the past 20 years. In 2010 the city created an outreach program known as H.A.N.D.S. Across Chattanooga, standing for the Helping All Nationalities Diversify Society.

The program organizes Welcome Fairs that put new immigrants in contact with social services and local officials, which has seen great success in its first year.

Photo Credit: djprybyl

Los Angeles


One of the country’s largest cities, Los Angeles’ population of 3.8 million comprises 40% foreign-born residents. Roughly a third of those 1,488,917 people are naturalized citizens and almost a million are not, which the city has decided to address in 2010 through a partnership with the federal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The partnership, active for two years, offers immigrants free citizenship information workshops, and works with schools and parent groups to promote integration. Another initiative of the partnership will be to reduce fraud against immigrants seeking legal advice, a common problem in Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: kevindooley

Boulder, Colo.


In the heart of the Colorado Rockies, Boulder is the unsurprising destination of choice for a good number of immigrants to the U.S. Out of its population of more than 92,000, immigrants make up more than 10,000, or 12%. The problem is that only 2,758 of them are naturalized U.S. citizens, or 25%.

To help address the needs of all immigrants and integrate them better into the Boulder community, the city set up the Immigrant Advisory Committee in 2006 to advise the city government on issues relating to the immigrant community. The Committee has seven members, appointed by the city manager, who reflect the demographics of the immigrant community in Boulder and actively advise the government.

Since 2006 the Committee has helped shape or re-shape services and policies for the Boulder Public Library, the fire department, the division of housing, the parks and recreation department and many others. The city is also one of the pilot cities for a naturalization initiative organized by the NLC.

Photo Credit: Greg Younger

Littleton, Colo.


Also in Colorado, the town of Littleton is probably best known for its association with Columbine High School. With the Littleton Immigrant Resource Center, established permanently in 2009, the community surely hopes to be seen rather as a beacon of acceptance and integration.

Serving the town’s 3,475 foreign-born residents, the NLC says the Center “aims to create a community in which all people feel like they belong to [sic] by supporting services and programs for the local immigrant families … ”

The effort has succeeded in establishing a corps of volunteers to achieve its goals of integration and naturalization. Volunteers house immigrant students, work one-on-one with immigrants preparing for the naturalization exam and tutor English.

Photo Credit: Bill Saturno

Richmond, Va.


Richmond is a state capital with a population just more than 200,000, of which 11,781 (or 6%) are foreign-born. Since 2000, the city’s Hispanic population has grown by 95% and makes up almost half of the immigrant population.

In response to the changing demographics the city established the Hispanic Liaison Office in 2004, whose goal is to provide essential information and services to the growing Latino community. From translation and interpretation services to contacts at medical clinics and legal services, the office helps Hispanic immigrants prepare their taxes, obtain passports and identification documents, and sponsors cultural services.

Photo Credit: Taber Andrew

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