Welcoming America: A Movement to Embrace Newcomers

Darlene_Rodriguez2When Pope Francis urged the United States and the world to view newcomers as people — seeing their faces and listening to their stories with the goal of responding to their current plight in the best possible manner — that rallying call was not just for the most recent wave of newcomers, but for all persons, both native- and foreign-born.

This rallying call forms a strong counter-narrative to current political discourse, one that is echoed at the local level. For instance, despite politicians’ ongoing ideological battle over comprehensive immigration reform and the admission of refugees into the U.S., there is encouraging news at local levels as some U.S. cities have been engaging their new neighbors through the “Welcoming Movement.”

David Lubell is the founder of Welcoming America, a national network of cities and communities that have spearheaded the movement to help governments, business leaders, and nonprofit organizations promote immigrant settlement and integration. He uses a powerful metaphor to emphasize the importance of the Welcoming Movement: “If you think of an immigrant as a seed making its way to a new garden, we’ve traditionally focused on the seed, but not on the soil.”

Consequently, one must think about both the immigrant community and the receiving community to have successful integration. In doing so, community leaders and local government officials have — according to Welcoming America and its affiliates — begun to adopt plans, committees, and resolutions with the explicit aim of making their communities more welcoming for all residents. Rather than focusing on the service needs of the foreign-born, which has historically been the approach, the welcoming movement concentrates on community-building and fostering relationships with their newest neighbors.

The premise is that knowing more about the experiences shared between native and newcomer can lead to increased levels of understanding and trust. This experience allows for difficult but constructive conversations in which reciprocity between natives and newcomers enables greater inclusion and integration of both groups’ needs.

Inclusion and integration are vital as there are about 40 million foreign-born people living in the United States today. Research has shown that immigrants have a positive effect on the local housing market and on reducing crime; they also attract the young and creative to the communities they join, as well as corporations that are looking for talent from around the world.

According to a report by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Partnership for a New American Economy, for every 1,000 immigrants who arrive in a county, 270 U.S.-born residents move there in response. Lubell and his colleague Rachel Peric, deputy director at Welcoming America, assert that a growing number of cities across the country are already experiencing “the welcoming effect” that comes from the social, cultural, and economic gains that communities more welcoming to immigrants experience. In short, creating an environment that is friendly toward immigrants not only makes economic sense, but common sense as well.

Nashville, Tenn.; Dayton, Ohio; Detroit; and Atlanta are just some of the many cities that have been able to improve job creation, economic growth, and social cohesion in their communities as a result of “welcoming city” initiatives.

Currently, more than 60 local governments have joined Welcoming America’s “Welcoming Cities and Counties” initiative. These cities’ leaders are committed to making their communities more inclusive and economically vibrant places for immigrants and all residents. Through this initiative, city leaders empower newcomers to engage in their communities, as well as promote immigrant-friendly policies and practices that increase everyone’s quality of life. Leaders are also able to learn from their peers about best practices in immigrant integration and co-create tools that will facilitate successful integration.

So, what have those who are engaged in this movement learned? According to Welcoming America and its affiliates, communities that seek to be more welcoming should consider doing the following:

● Address the fears and misconceptions of residents in the community at the beginning. A failure to engage longtime residents before the arrival of newcomers may result in harbored resentment.

● Plan to welcome newcomers and invite everyone to the table. When people are invested in the planning process, they are more likely to help see that the plans come to fruition. Consequently, if communities are genuinely seeking to develop a plan that reflects the needs of all community members, including immigrants, then local support for the plan’s activities and initiatives will likely remain strong if all are involved.

● Market the benefits of welcoming during and after the implementation of your plan. Ensure that the benefits of new policies are communicated throughout your communities. Emphasize the cultural, economic, social, and political advantages. Doing so may aid stakeholders in reframing and examining the integration of immigrants as a way to showcase leadership in their communities, which can be used as an exemplar for other communities to follow.

Learning from other cities can help maximize opportunities for immigrants’ economic participation, cultural vitality, and civic engagement. Doing so also allows communities and their residents to live up to Pope Francis’ exhortation — that “building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity.”

Organizations like Welcoming America, and its “Welcoming Movement,” provide notable examples of how communities composed of both natives and newcomers can in time become neighbors and friends.●

Darlene X. Rodriguez, PhD, is an assistant professor of social work and human services at Kennesaw State University. To learn more about Welcoming America, visit welcomingamerica.org.