U.S. cities with large immigrant and refugee populations thrive in a variety of ways. There are ways to support this community, which have been proven to make a difference. At the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, mayors of two sanctuary cities and an expert on smart immigration policy spoke on these issues at “Building Bridges When Others Want to Build Walls.”
Welcoming Immigrants Benefits Everyone
• Immigrants keep America youthful, which is essential to a healthy economy and people.
The average age in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was rising, which is common for expensive tourist destinations, said the city’s mayor, Javier Gonzales. They saw that equalize as their immigrant population grew.
• Cities with more immigrants have lower crime rates.
The 10 U.S. cities with the highest percentage of refugees saw a decrease in violent crime and property crime by as much as 70 percent, from 2006 to 2015, according to New American Economy, an organization that studies immigrants’ impact on the U.S. economy.
Philadelphia, a sanctuary city, is at its lowest crime rate in 30 years, said the city’s mayor, James Kenney.
“One crime is one crime too many, but it’s not our immigrants that are doing so,” he said. “These folks work for a living. They start business. They employ people. They pay taxes when they don’t have the ability to take any advantage of those taxes.”
• Immigrants foster population growth, which fuels a healthy economy
Population growth provides taxes to fund shared services, encourages consumer spending to benefit the local economy, and raises housing values, said panelist Kate Brick, the director of State and Local Initiatives at New American Economy.
“There were no major metros in the United States that grew over the last 40 years without at least 10,000 immigrants joining those communities,” she said.
• Diversity is fun
Citizens of Philadelphia have a great time experiencing a variety of cultures right in their own city.
“You can get around our city and really experience every day almost a global trip,” he said.
Integrate and Protect Migrant Communities
• Immigrant-friendly resolutions
Gonzales passed an immigrant-friendly resolution in Santa Fe, which dictated that police should focus on serious crimes rather than looking at immigration status. And he saw it make a change.
“We saw this incredible move, this development in our community where the new immigrant became very much integrated into the fabric of our community,” he said. “They became job creators. They became young students in our schools.”
Tucson’s mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, passed a similar resolution in December.
Santa Fe also recently passed a confidentiality resolution, stating that government organizations won’t ask about documentation status.
Both Gonzales and Kenney visit public spaces to reassure immigrant families that they’re enforcing these policies and keeping people safe.
• Create policies and government infrastructure to meet immigrants’ needs
Cities that have created offices of Immigrant Affairs or New Americans are sending a message that immigrants are welcome. It allows immigrants a way to interact with government in their preferred language and with an understanding of their cultural values.
“Language access keeps the government from taking advantage of merchants and other folks,” Kenney said. “If you have building inspectors, health inspectors, other types of people, police who can speak Spanish or speak a Southeast Asian language, people are safer, and it’s harder to get taken advantage of.
• Publicly acknowledge diverse communities. And have fun!
Philadelphia has Immigrant Business Week, which includes workshops geared toward immigrant communities on how to start or grow a business.
The city also just started an annual soccer tournament with 32 different ethnic teams.
“It just put people together that had never talked to each other before,” Kenney said. “I had people from the Ivory Coast in Liberia now talking to Mexicans and people from Poland.”
Santa Fe holds an annual Mexican celebration in their historic downtown plaza.
“Being able to celebrate a very powerful Mexican tradition, with lots of pride, in the center of town that largely is filled by tourists but bringing people from all over the city, is a way to create that integration that becomes critical for the community to bond.”
• Encourage diversity in schools
Santa Fe just passed an initiative requiring bilingual instruction in all preschools.
“When you think about the opportunity to learn both Spanish and English from the time you’re three years old all the way up, that just spells really great success for the children and for our community,” Gonzales said.
• Talk to people with opposing points of view.
“Arm yourself with the facts,” Brick said.
New American Economy just released information on the economic contributions immigrants make in every Congressional District nationwide at www.maptheimpact.org.
• Be active. Be nice.
The two mayors shared advice on how citizens can actively support the immigrant community: Volunteer with groups that support immigrants. Get involved politically and let local and congressional legislators know if you don’t agree with current policies. Business owners can help by hiring immigrants.
“If you really are your brother’s keeper, you have to have a relationship with everyone in your community,” Gonzales said.