“Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” ― John F. Kennedy
Although the United States’ has a long history as an immigrant country, this June marks the first annual Immigrant Heritage Month. Welcome.us, a “non-profit dedicated to celebrating a United States that is fueled by an immigrant tradition,” is leading the effort to corral activities under the Immigrant Heritage Month banner, with a wide array of individuals and organizations from many sectors of society supporting the effort. Cities and other municipalities are also officially proclaiming June as Immigrant Heritage Month in their communities. “In the United States, with a good idea and enough hard work, anything is possible,” Tolu Olubunmi, executive director of Welcome.us,- also an immigrant and DREAMer – states. “The entrepreneurial drive and spirit of our country is built on our diversity of origins. It is what drew the first people to the U.S. and what continues to drive American business. American success is a result of our many distinct experiences, not in spite of it.” The first annual Immigrant Heritage Month focuses on a nationwide effort “to gather and share inspirational stories of immigration in America,” and notes that “immigrants have played a starring role in the history and culture of the United States.” Consider the following three sample ads Welcome.us prepared as part of Immigrant Heritage Month. This first video describes the diversity of immigrant heritage across the United States:
In the following video, actor Jeremy Irons describes the hard work and diversity of generations of immigrants to the United States:
In this video, Academy Award winner Sally Field narrates the story of Scottish immigrant Williamina Fleming and how she made groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy after immigrating to the United States in the 1800s:
However, despite the salient efforts of Welcome.us and similar initiatives—actions that are truly needed to further push the U.S. in the direction of a more inclusive society as well as to encourage reform and modernization of the U.S. immigration system—the U.S. hasn’t always had, nor does it currently have, an immigration system that is keeping with the times of a changing economy and society. However, despite the less than savory actions around immigration legislation at the federal, state, and local levels, a growing number of cities, counties, and metropolitan areas around the country are officially becoming places that intentionally welcome immigrants.
The United States’ Rocky History of Immigrant Reception
While the efforts of individuals and organizations to emphasize the positive economic, cultural, and social contributions immigrants have made, and continue to make, are important, contradictory and ambivalent attitudes towards immigration remain. In recent decades, U.S. immigration law has bent towards more criminalization and the U.S. immigration system has become heavier on costly enforcement measures. Additionally, the system has not received meaningful overhauls or upgrades to meet the demands and dynamic nature of the U.S. economy and society within the broader context of the global economy. Furthermore, U.S. immigration law often ignores the broader historical, economic, and cultural forces that drive immigration. Specifically, the U.S. immigration system increasingly is at odds with the economic interests of the United States nationally and locally. The system hasn’t kept up with changing economic forces and labor market demands. There aren’t adequate pathways for immigrants to meet the economic interests of the country. Backlogs mean those in line have to wait years to be reunited with their families. Employers can’t hire the workers they need in an efficient manner. Intact families—often comprised of citizens and immigrants—are forcibly separated by a byzantine system.
As the late geographer Harm de Blij observed, “Efforts to control cross-border migration lead to political initiatives that are sometimes at odds with professed principles. The overwhelming approval of Proposition 187 in California during the 1994 elections reflected a rising anti-immigrant sentiment—in a nation forged of immigrants—that would crest within a decade. By 2010, the issue had come to the forefront among American priorities as the United States coped with ‘undocumented’ immigrants numbering an estimated 10 to 12 million, and individual border states, notably Arizona, were seeking ways not only to stem the tide, but also to send back migrants who had crossed the U.S.-Mexican border illegally. This in turn led to allegations of police harassment based on personal appearance rather than actual wrongdoing. Meanwhile, various efforts to fortify the border took their own toll on America’s ‘open’ society.” Despite efforts by nativist and anti-immigrant forces over the years, today a clear majority of Americans are in favor of comprehensively reforming the U.S. immigration system to better align it with a 21st century economy and society. Increasingly, local elected, civic, business, and non-profit leaders in cities and metropolitan areas around the country recognize the benefits their communities receive by welcoming immigrants and encouraging effective immigrant integration.
Today, Cities and Metros are Welcoming Immigrants
Despite tepid progress in Washington toward thoughtful comprehensive immigration reform to upgrade the United States’ 20th century immigration system for the 21st century, more localities are recognizing that immigrants are an important component of their communities. As such, they’re exploring ways to attract, welcome, and retain immigrants. Cities in the Midwest and Great Lakes region are one example. The Global Great Lakes Network held its second annual convening last week in Pittsburgh during Immigrant Heritage Month, highlighting immigrant integration efforts throughout the broader Great Lakes and Midwest regions. The convening brought together representatives of cities and organizations in the upper Midwestern region working on immigrant-related economic development initiatives to share their success stories and encourage discussion of next steps.
While some local immigrant integration initiatives focus on attracting and welcoming immigrants as part of a place’s broader economic development strategy, many local initiatives are in fact comprehensive approaches at integration. In such places, economic development may indeed be one component of a comprehensive strategy, but there are also actions aimed at encouraging language, education, cultural, social, and other forms of integration, all of which are interrelated. Immigrant integration for economic growth is an important component in garnering buy-in and support from a wide berth of individuals and organizations unfamiliar with immigrant integration. Yet, many other aspects of integration are equally as important—hence the need for a comprehensive approach. It’s therefore crucial for such comprehensive initiatives to work for more inclusive policies for all, and to counter local, state, and federal policies that are antithetical to integration and welcoming principles.
More broadly, in the absence of national leadership and progress on immigration reform, what cities and metro areas are doing for immigrant integration is likely one aspect of what Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institution term the “metropolitan revolution.” As Katz notes, the metropolitan revolution, “is cities and metropolitan areas, and the networks of leaders who co-govern them,…stepping up and doing the hard work to grow jobs and make their economies more prosperous…Cities and metropolitan areas are really networks of leaders and institutions. They’re very powerful on their own, but when they come together and they collaborate to compete, they can do grand things together.” Although the “metropolitan revolution” is manifesting in many ways across metropolitan areas, Katz and Bradley cite Houston as an example of how a metro area can embrace and build upon the strength of its immigrant communities. “The immigrant population in the United States is critical to our country’s innovation and entrepreneur economy,” Katz and Bradley describe. “By embracing and bolstering immigrant communities the way that Houston has, metros are able to secure their economies of tomorrow.”
During Immigrant Heritage Month, as part of their broader efforts for immigrant integration—or even as a beginning first step—many municipalities, representing a diversity of geography and history of immigrant reception, have issued official proclamations celebrating June as Immigrant Heritage Month in their local community. Examples include Atlanta and Boston. “The entrepreneurial drive and spirit of our country is built on our diversity of origins,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. “This month, we look forward to joining cities and leaders across the country in honoring and celebrating the role immigrants continue to play in making our city competitive and dynamic, both culturally and economically.” “Generations of immigrants from every corner of the world, including my own parents, have made Boston their home. And it is this diversity that make us a unique city,” Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said. “We are a welcoming city, and I want all our immigrants to know that they don’t have to leave their cultures behind to become American in Boston.” Given the fact that some cities and states were passing anti-immigrant measures only a few years ago, it’s very promising that public officials are now moving in a more inclusive direction.
Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Throughout the United States’ complex history of receiving immigrants with varying degrees of warm, cool, and mixed reception, there have indeed been setbacks on the road to immigrant justice. Yet, as recent actions at the city level indicate—with a variety of places rolling out the welcome mat for immigrants and looking for ways to effectively integrate immigrants and newcomers into their communities—the nation continues to press on along the road to a more inclusive society and one that welcomes the immigrants of today who, like those of the past, which Immigrant Heritage Month celebrates, will shape the future of the country.
References and 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.
De Blij, Harm. 2012. Why Geography Matters More than Ever. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ewing, Walter A. 2012. Opportunity and Exclusion: A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy. Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center.
Giovagnoli, Mary. 2013. Overhauling Immigration Law: A Brief History and Basic Principles of Reform. Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center.
Katz, Bruce and Jennifer Bradley. 2013. The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
McDaniel, Paul. 2014. Revitalization in the Heartland of America: Welcoming Immigrant Entrepreneurs for Economic Development. Washington, D.C.: Immigration Policy Center.
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.