Last October, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that Atlanta would be the first major city in the South to join a growing network of cities across the country recognizing the vital contribution of immigrants. At an event in October 2013 organized by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA), Mayor Reed publicly acknowledged that it was time to change the way Georgia—whose 2011 HB 87 law makes it one of the most anti-immigrant states in the country—is perceived. While he acknowledged that “being forward-leaning on immigration is a little tougher in the South,” he committed his city to joining Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties network.
The mayor did not waste any time. Slightly less than one year later, at the recommendation of the Welcoming Atlanta Working Group he created this May, Mayor Reed announced that his administration will establish a Mayoral Office of Multicultural Affairs for the city of Atlanta. The creation of this office—one of the first of its kind in the South, and one of fewer than 20 nationwide—came as the top recommendation among 20 that he accepted from the Working Group. Other recommendations ranged from creating a one-stop shop to guide immigrant small business owners through city bureaucracy to improving access to adult language learning programs and improving cultural competency within city agencies.
Suddenly Georgia was making news again—not for an immigration policy that is backwards-looking and inhumane, but for taking leadership in changing the narrative around immigration and creating an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of immigrant communities.
Why take this on? The answer is in the numbers. Immigrants are critical to the economic competitiveness of the U.S., especially in rapidly-growing cities like Atlanta. According to the Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE)—an organization that has helped make the economic case for immigrant integration—immigrants started 28 percent of all new U.S. businesses in 2011, employing one in 10 U.S. workers. In Georgia, Latino-owned businesses contributed $6 billion to the state economy and employed 25,874 people in 2013. Mayor Reed gets this. As he told members of the media at a press conference on September 17, “As Atlanta positions itself to be a global leader, attracting and retaining talent is imperative.”But Georgia is not alone. Just five days after Atlanta’s plan to create an Office of Multicultural Affairs was announced, Nashville followed suit. Already known as being a multicultural city that owes much of its recent economic success to its immigrant population—one of the fastest growing in the nation—Nashville’s Mayor Karl Dean signed an executive order creating a similar office in Music City: the Mayor’s Office for New Americans.
Nashville’s story has had a few twists and turns over the last several years. In 2009, a coalition of the private sector, faith leaders and community groups called Nashville for All of Us defeated a ballot measure that would have required all public business to be conducted in English—and would have alienated many of Nashville’s nearly 124,000 immigrant residents. As of 2011, 135 foreign-owned companies created more than 34,000 jobs in Nashville. Recognizing the negative impact this measure would have on the city—both in terms of Nashville’s image and its ability to properly serve its residents—Nashvillians pushed back against anti-immigrant sentiment and have worked to preserve their reputation as a city that embraces its global population.
In the creation of the Office for New Americans, Nashville joins Atlanta and a growing number of cities that are helping immigrants contribute to and thrive in their communities. Starting in 2001 with the charter of the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, several other large cities (including Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle) have formally institutionalized immigrant inclusion work in city government to facilitate and coordinate services, create opportunities to celebrate immigrant culture and diversity, and—perhaps most importantly—ensure that all residents have a voice in the city decisions that affect their lives.
North Carolina is also leading the way, with four cities in the state that are members of Welcoming Cities and Counties—including Raleigh, High Point, Greenville, and Charlotte, whose Immigrant Integration Task Force was created through a city council resolution last November. The inter-agency task force, a result of a roundtable hosted by AS/COA in May 2013, is engaging Charlotte residents through listening sessions, surveys and interviews about how the city can better promote immigrant integration. Other North Carolina cities are working with Uniting NC and the University of North Carolina’s Building Integrated Communities program to advance similar agendas.
But change hasn’t come easily. In the last two decades, Charlotte’s immigrant population jumped from 2 to 10 percent of the overall population, Nashville’s grew from 2 to 12 percent, and Atlanta’s grew from 4 to 13 percent. As restrictive legislation in states across the South show, the rapid demographic change—coupled with a misleading narrative led by a very loud minority—has made it a challenge to create an environment that is welcoming to immigrants.
However, this is a challenge that cities have chosen to take on. Stakeholders from different sectors—from chambers of commerce and local businesses to community organizations and faith leaders—have decided to come together and talk about what immigration means to their city, and how to leverage the myriad benefits of their diverse population to support economic growth and competitiveness. In many of these cities, this is the first time leaders from the private sector, government and civil society have been in the same room to discuss this issue. And it’s working.
Despite the divisive rhetoric in Washington that, for decades, has politicized and paralyzed any chance for reform on immigration, we’ve seen the pendulum shift from local-level ordinances that made life more difficult for immigrants to more and more cities working to create an environment that supports inclusion and prosperity for all residents.
While having an office dedicated to this work that sits in the city government is major benchmark, there are many other steps cities can take along the way— from creating a city-wide language access policy to encouraging local police departments to opt out of federal immigration laws that threaten trust in law enforcement. Regardless of how cities choose to engage, it is exciting to see this “race to the top” when it comes to immigrant integration. Nashville and Atlanta have set the bar high—who will be next?