For Stronger Communities, Cities and Metropolitan Areas Welcome Immigrants

Despite the glacial progress of national immigration reform, local leaders throughout the United States, in places ranging from big cities to small towns, are charting a course for their communities to be places of welcome and inclusion for immigrants and newcomers. Take, for example, Fatima Said, who came to the United States as a refugee from her native Bosnia around 20 years ago. Said, who is executive director of Project FINE (Focus on Integrating Newcomers through Education) in Winona, Minnesota, is a strong advocate for developing inclusive communities and working to build bridges among immigrants and the receiving community. Then there’s Al Heggins, the human relations director for the City of High Point, North Carolina, and Dan Rearick, executive director of UnitingNC, also in North Carolina. Heggins’ vision for High Point is an equitable and inclusive community, which she is achieving through the various programs she spearheads. Rearick’s goal is a North Carolina that welcomes its immigrant neighbors. Similar initiatives are found in Detroit, St. Louis, Dayton, and in many other cities and states in every region of the country.

On top of the ongoing efforts in such places, last week was “National Welcoming Week” in the U.S., an annual series of state and local events planned by local welcoming organizations connected with Welcoming America. The week highlights the contributions of immigrants to communities and brings together “immigrants and U.S.-born community members in a spirit of unity.”  Within that theme, the White House honored a group of leaders from Welcoming America affiliates as Champions of Change in a ceremony in Washington, DC on September 19. But what the hundreds of activities that occurred during the week also show is that local leaders – government, business, non-profit, and others – in cities and towns throughout the country recognize the positive advantages immigrants and immigrant entrepreneurs bring to their communities. They’re embarking upon a voyage towards warm receptivity, inclusion, and integration in an effort to strengthen and grow their communities.

Such stories are becoming more common not only in the United States but around the world. In Auckland, for instance, the Auckland Regional Settlement Strategy identifies opportunities to better support international newcomers. In Germany, Nürnberg, where more than half of children under six are immigrants, is focusing on an inclusive approach to education. And in Tenerife, the local city government, through its Together in the Same Direction (Juntos En la misma dirección) program, emphasizes interaction among people and organizations to encourage immigrant integration. These examples illustrate activities geared toward streamlining the immigrant integration process for the benefit of all members of a community. Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) defines immigrant integration as “a dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.” They use the term “integration” instead of “assimilation” to emphasize “respect for and incorporation of differences, the need for mutual adaptation, and an appreciation of diversity.” Audrey Singer, of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, states that “where an immigrant arrives and settles is very important to the immigrant integration process, which largely takes place on the local level. Immigrants live in neighborhoods, go to work, set up businesses, and send their children to school – all of which happens at the local level.” While major policies are proposed and enacted at the national and international levels, life goes on at the local level. At the local level, places realize the benefits of cultivating a welcoming and inclusive community and to facilitate integration of immigrants and newcomers into the life of a place.

Meanwhile, there are diverse attitudes of receptivity toward immigrants by the native-born population across geographic regions and levels of urbanity within a large country such as the United States. Pastor and Mollenkopf (2012) suggest that this pattern of geographic variation in reception toward immigrants alludes to a key point: “while the federal government is responsible for determining policy about immigrant admissions, receptivity to immigrants and efforts at integrating immigrants are a distinctly local or regional affair”.

While examples of negative policies towards newcomers are certainly evident, the growing consensus at the local level is a need and desire to be welcoming. At the national level, “governments set policies related to immigration admission, status, and citizenship; they frame the terms of integration around approaches ranging from marginalization to assimilation to multiculturalism, depending on the country” (Siemiatycki 2012). As Myer Siemiatycki argues, cities tend to have little direct role in immigration policy. Rather, cities “are the destination point of migration journeys”. As cities are the local stage upon which national immigration policy plays out, municipal leadership is important to a place’s receptivity to immigration and immigrant integration (Mollenkopf and Pastor 2012). Remarking on the importance of this municipal leadership, Alan Broadbent suggests

[C]ities know and feel both urbanization and immigration profoundly. At the national and sub-national levels, urbanization and immigration are policy issues. At worst, they become xenophobic political issues as politicians stir fear of immigrants. At the municipal level, though, they are primary lived experience. And at the city level is where we find the political and community voices that embrace immigrants, knowing they bring strength, vitality, and innovation.

Building upon Broadbent’s comments, Ratna Omidvar describes cities as the “lead actors on the stage of global migration.” As such, city leadership is an important component in receptivity and immigrant settlement and integration. Omidvar also states that

[A]s the level of government closest to the people, local governments are most directly and immediately impacted by the lives, successes and challenges of immigrants…local governments who understand this respond by proactively building inclusion into public policy and by actively providing new opportunities for business development and infrastructure design.

These sentiments suggest that local leadership would do well to keep in mind the intersections among immigrant settlement and integration, warm receptivity, and regional resilience. Omidvar cautions, however, that, although cities may well indeed be powerful change agents, they must effectively engage with sub-national, national, and international policy makers. This involves making their stories known in order for a spotlight to be shone on effective policies and practices for others to adapt and replicate. Local actions may then, in turn, be translated into broader policies for not only local contexts but national immigration strategies as well. As such, Broadbent also suggests that it is important for city leaders in different places to learn from one another in terms of what works well, what does not work, and what programs are worth adapting or emulating. Cities and organizations learning from one another is one reason why a series of events such as National Welcoming Week are so important.

In conclusion, cities around the world are implementing strategies to attract, welcome, retain, and integrate immigrants. In cities, local leaders recognize that immigrants bring positive contributions to the communities in which they reside. From new consumers, tenants, and homebuyers, to innovators, entrepreneurs and small business owners who create new jobs and opportunities, immigrants play an important role in rejuvenating and strengthening communities in cities large and small.

As far as the ongoing debate about immigration reform in the United States is concerned, a growing list of local places throughout the country clearly recognize the positive benefits immigrants bring to their communities. Cities across the U.S. also see the need to reform the country’s byzantine immigration system and bring it in line with a twenty-first century economy and society. In the mean time, national leaders in Washington remain mired in partisan politics, further delaying needed reforms.

Yet leaders from the local level to the national must bear in mind what Brookings’ Singer and Wilson note, that “immigration is a healthy sign that a region is viewed as appealing and opportunity rich…a place that welcomes immigrants and their families, allows businesses and workers to flourish, and creates an inclusive atmosphere presents unmistakable opportunities.” Local leaders from Winona to High Point, from Auckland to Tenerife, recognize that a welcoming climate is productive. It’s time for national leaders in Washington to come to that realization as well.

Further Reading

Cities of Migration. 2012. Good Ideas from Successful Cities: Municipal Leadership on Immigrant Integration. Edited by Kim Turner. Toronto: The Maytree Foundation.

Cities of Migration. 2012. Practice to Policy: Lessons from Local Leadership on Immigrant Integration. Edited by Kim Turner. Toronto: The Maytree Foundation.

McDaniel, Paul N. 2013. Receptivity in a New Immigrant Gateway: Immigrant Settlement Geography, Public Education, and Immigrant Integration in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte, NC: The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Pastor, Manuel and John Mollenkopf. 2012. “Struggling over Strangers or Receiving with Resilience? The Metropolitics of Immigrant Integration.” In Urban and Regional Policy and Its Effects: Volume 4. Edited by Nancy Pindus, Margaret Weir, Howard Wial, and Hal Wolman. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Singer, Audrey and Jill H. Wilson. 2013. “The 10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metropolitan Areas: Immigration, Opportunity, and Appeal.” In The Avenue: Rethinking Metropolitan America. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.


  1. […] my previous post for The Migrationist, I discussed ways in which cities are attracting and welcoming immigrants as part of community […]


  2. […] system that encourages and supports immigrant integration nationally and locally will help strengthen communities, cities, and metropolitan areas. If comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality, in coming […]


  3. […] Welcoming and integration minded communities might consider encouraging the building up of social capital within the context of public education. One way in which to do this is to ensure adequate access to education for all as a means of strengthening communities. Concerning education specifically, Putnam uses data to suggest that, in much the same way that high social capital correlates with greater child well-being and health, states with high social capital scores on the Social Capital Index also correlate with higher student standardized test scores taken in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as with graduation rates. Putnam’s analysis “reconfirms decades of research showing that community involvement is crucial to schools’ success. These studies have found that student learning is influenced not only by what happens in school and at home, but also by social networks, norms, and trust in the school and the wider community.” […]


  4. […] aimed at promoting immigrant integration and social and economic cohesion within their communities. Local places are realizing that a future of inclusion, rather than exclusion, is a much better future to […]


  5. […] more cities around the world implement innovative strategies to welcome immigrants and newcomers, they’re also sharing what they’ve learned with one another and with other cities […]


  6. […] municipal, civic, and community leaders in places around the world are already recognizing the role migration can play in their local and regional development. They’re proactively pursuing innovative initiatives to […]


  7. […] I’ve discussed in previous pieces for The Migrationist (here, here, and here), there is a growing trend of municipalities exploring ways in which to cultivate a […]


  8. […] welcoming and inclusive communities is important. Words and actions of mayors and governors on immigrant and refugee integration at the municipal, metropolitan, and state levels have created safe spaces for a broad cross-sector […]


  9. […] neighborhoods and communities. Although I’ve written about immigrant integration in cities and metropolitan areas for The Migrationist before, recent activities only serve to exemplify the growing momentum on […]


  10. […] Such approaches are detrimental to processes of immigrant and refugee integration in local communities, cities, and metropolitan regions, and would ultimately be detrimental to the U.S. economy and […]


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