Welcome to America?

With immigration policy the hottest of hot button issues in America, is it possible to transform the debate? Only by engaging with each other at a much deeper level to create a collective vision of the future.

Rachel Steinhardt
22 July 2013

Welcoming Michigan. All Rights Reserved.

In the mid-1980s, my grandparents, who were immigrants and Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe, moved their small clothing store business from New York City to the small town of Frederick, Maryland, about an hour’s drive from the nation’s capital. When the store opened, the town’s mayor made a personal visit to welcome them to the growing community.

The gesture was an expression of the kind of values that many towns aspire to – hospitality, family, hard work and tenacity. And like so many other immigrants, these values were embodied by my grandparents. They were the ingredients of their success, and they helped to shape the economic and cultural contributions that my grandparents made to the adopted town that welcomed them.

Thirty years later, the same community became emblematic of a very different reception for immigrant families.  As the demographics of Frederick shifted and the Latino population increased, so too did new tensions, and a growing number of restrictive immigration policies were passed at the local level. Last year, the president of Frederick County’s governing body was identified as one of the ten most anti-immigration officials in local governments across America.  

Frederick is not alone, of course. Such tensions have sparked violence in many parts of the USA. Nationwide, anti-Latino hate crimes rose by forty per cent between 2003 and 2007. In places like Suffolk County, Long Island, a cultural and political climate similar to that of Frederick with an undertone of anti-immigrant sentiment produced a string of murders perpetrated against the burgeoning immigrant community.

During the last twenty years, large-scale immigration has impacted the United States in unprecedented ways. In 1990, one in twelve Americans was an immigrant, while by 2005 that figure had risen to one in eight. While traditional immigrant gateways like New York City and Chicago still remain important destinations, what is unique about this recent wave of people has been the rise of new gateways in smaller cities like Frederick, Nashville, Boise and Omaha that don’t have a prior history of immigration.  These communities have received a larger percentage of new arrivals than ever before, and in places like Frederick and Suffolk County, the immigrant population has doubled in ten years or less.

Demographic change on this scale is never easy for anyone involved. We often think about the difficulties of adaptation for immigrants themselves, but the communities that receive them also face major challenges that must be factored into the equation. Growing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and elsewhere suggests that, while intensely local, these challenges are also global.

The whole world is on the move, and as communities are continuously reshaped by migration, the central question is how to approach these changes in ways that can transform the divisiveness that surrounds the pro- and anti-immigrant conversation. While migration policy is often debated at the macro-level, it is at the level of individuals and their communities that its consequences are experienced most deeply. It is here that both problems and solutions must be rooted, and that’s a story of culture change, not just shifts in public policy.

Welcoming America, the organization I work for now, focuses its efforts on these processes of culture change nationwide, but its roots lie deep in Tennessee, a state with the third fastest growing foreign-born population in the USA. Eight years ago, the climate for immigrants in Tennessee had sunk to an all-time low. David Lubell, an Ashoka fellow and then the director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, watched in horror as a local mosque was burnt to the ground, as officials tried to purge Spanish-language books from a local library, and as legislators introduced over fifty bills that were targeted at immigrants. How had things gotten so bad?

What was missing, Lubell concluded, was something much more personal than policy: it was empathy - not just for immigrants, but also for long-time Tennesseans who were afraid that their community was becoming unrecognizable. “It was this personal transformation that helped me recognize that both our organization and our field needed to adapt if we were to help communities to transform. We needed to start with ourselves.”  

Out of this transformation came Welcoming Tennessee, the first effort of its kind to reach out to native-born Tennesseans in an effort to address the root causes of their anxiety.  As social psychologists have learned, the public debate surrounding immigration often overlooks more deep-seated fears about those who are different. So Welcoming Tennessee focused on helping people to identify and appreciate the values they shared in common, and on developing strong interpersonal relationships. 

Leaders from both immigrant and non-immigrant communities mobilized to tell this new story by sharing positive messages about common values in the mainstream media, on billboards, and at educational and intercultural events. As they became more open to listening to each other’s fears, concerns and priorities, recent arrivals and long-time residents of the state became more willing to engage, and ultimately, more welcoming to everyone in their communities. 

Lubell also found that individuals who feared that their communities were changing for the worse were not immediately willing to engage in policy campaigns, but they were open to meeting and talking with their immigrant neighbours. Research has shown that that those with immigrant friends tend to see immigration as an opportunity, while those without these social ties see it as a problem. Direct contact between different groups is essential for transformation to take place at any level, but in many communities “natives” and “newcomers” live on opposite sides of town and have few opportunities to interact. So that was a good place to begin.

As individuals engaged with one another, a collective transformation began to take shape. Local polling demonstrated a positive change in the perceptions of U.S.-born residents towards immigrants, and local leaders began to talk publicly about the value of creating a welcoming community. Today, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean speaks about how being an immigrant-friendly city is vital for economic development, and is something to be celebrated. “When immigrants pick your city that is a great honour,” he says. Businesses that had considered leaving the state stayed on, as did many immigrant families. As a result, the broader community has benefited from the civic and economic contributions of new Tennesseans.

Traditionally, immigration and integration have been approached through a focus on helping immigrants adapt to their new environments, and this is obviously vital. But little attention has been paid to helping native-born residents cope with change. At its worst, ignoring the need to engage with their concerns can create fertile ground for the exploitation of their anxieties by political opportunists - the darkest example being played out in my own family history in the Holocaust. By contrast, engagement between different groups and a willingness to work through the issues they face together eventually creates a community where everyone can thrive, just like the one where my grandparents were welcomed by the mayor.

A welcoming community doesn’t just tolerate newcomers or accept more cultural diversity - it actively seeks to engage all of its members in building a vision of the future.  If transformation is a process of collective visioning and co-creation, a welcoming culture is essential because it helps to ensure that everyone can participate in this process.

Welcome to America.

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