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Spotlight on Immigrant Integration Success Stories

June 04, 2009

For casual immigration observers one little known fact is the tireless work being done around the country to support immigrant integration. From Nashville to Omaha, organizations are making impressive efforts to devote talent, energy and resources to effective integration of these newcomers, and while their work is often recognized locally, national attention often fails to focus on their achievements.

That’s why the Migration Policy Institute’s E Pluribus Unum Awards—announced to great fanfare at a May 20 ceremony at the Library of Congress—come at a critical time. These awards draw attention to and celebrate the work of non-profit organizations, businesses, and government agencies that are engaged in outstanding integration initiatives. With all the misinformed rhetoric related to immigration, it was quite fitting that this ceremony was held across the street from the nation’s Capitol. In meeting many of the winners, I was personally struck by their tireless and heroic efforts.

Award recipients in the program’s inaugural year included organizations in Texas, Tennessee, Colorado, New York and California, representing both traditional and newer immigrant gateway cities. Each organization was awarded a $50,000 prize, and their programs ranged from providing the tools to promote basic and English-language education to public information campaigns about the role of immigrants in the community. Like AS/COA’s Hispanic integration work—a project working with the business community to promote Hispanic integration in new gateway cities—the MPI awards are a much-needed initiative to highlight the important role that immigrants can and do play in our communities.

Award recipients reflect the geographic spread of the United States’ growing Hispanic population, which now totals approximately 45.5 million people. Two of the noteworthy organizations are located in non-traditional immigrant gateway states.

The Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado—located in a county with a labor force estimated at 25 percent Hispanic—is the home of the Littleton Immigrant Integration Initiative (LI3). Established by civic and government leaders in 2005, the goal of LI3 is to directly address the changing demographics and the unfamiliarity of many Littleton residents with a newly arriving immigrant population. “We launched a bridge-building initiative to foster closer ties between native-born residents and immigrants, to encourage greater cultural understanding and connect immigrants with services that could bolster their professional, educational and health outcomes,” says Mayor Doug Clark.

The initiative is based out of a local public library where it runs a One-Stop Information Center that assists immigrants in jobs search, education, health and dental care, transportation, select banking services, and housing. A full schedule of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are offered throughout the year, and LI3 provides one-on-one citizenship mentoring that has been nationally recognized for the high rate that students then pass citizenship exam.

In a twist of irony, Littleton is located in the 6th congressional district, which was represented by Republican Tom Tancredo until January 2009. He is one of the most outspoken critics of immigration and of bilingual education, and although no longer in Congress, he continues to comment on immigration and the country’s changing demographics.

Nashville, while a refugee resettlement area for decades, is also not immune to misinformation about immigrants, and in January, a coalition of area leaders brought about the defeat of a referendum that was sparked by such attitudes—an “English-Only” initiative.

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) works to fill that void in public awareness through its public education and communications campaign, known as the “Welcoming Tennessee Initiative.” It creates opportunities for Tennessee residents, both native and foreign born, to discuss the effects of immigration and how to develop strong and inclusive communities.

TIRRC’s welcoming committees in Nashville and Shelbyville (home to a 1,400-employee Tyson chicken processing plant and other light manufacturing) create a platform for dialogue about immigration. Beyond that, more than 70 “ambassadors” have been recruited and trained around the state to organize welcoming committees and facilitate dialogue. TIRRC also has used billboards to launch visible public education campaigns and has held many community forums and presentations at churches, universities, and civic clubs.

In less than three years, local decisionmakers and business leaders have evolved from decrying the growth of the city’s immigrant population to now embracing the importance of an immigrant-friendly city. For example, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, in an address to the City Council before the English-Only vote noted that passage would “damage our reputation as a welcoming and friendly city.”

Initiatives like those highlighted by the first E Pluribus Unum award winners provide both inspiration and a call to action to all that recognize that part of this country’s greatness rests on its long immigrant history. So, roll up your sleeves, fire up the computer, and get to it. Out of many, we are one.

Michele Manatt is senior consultant to the AS/COA Hispanic Integration Initiative and served as senior advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 1993 to 1999.