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Recognizing and Utilizing the Diversity of Immigrants in Local Communities
By Nadia Rubaii-Barrett
The Challenge of Immigration
Immigration is one of the most complex and challenging forms of diversity facing local government leaders today. Compounding the obvious and often significant cultural differences between immigrants and long-term residents of a community, many recent immigrants speak languages quite distinct from English which few, if any, residents or government officials speak, making it difficult to have constructive communication. Immigrants often self-segregate in neighborhoods and jobs that keep them isolated from the rest of the population. In an environment of limited interactions, mutual stereotypes and fears are allowed to develop and solidify. In response to an influx of immigrants, already overburdened public health and safety officials, social service workers, and educators must respond to not only the quantitative increase in the number of people served, but also qualitative differences grounded in cultural differences, language barriers, and immigrants’ widespread distrust of government officials. The understandable pent up frustrations that citizens and local government officials feel in response to the national government’s inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform or to stem the tide of undocumented immigrants are often redirected to legal immigrants in a community in ways that impede effective utilization of diversity. And, of course, the current economic crisis only heightens tensions all around. In this environment it is easy to lose sight of the benefits which immigrants, with all their diversity of culture, language and traditions, can bring to a community.
Realizing the Benefits of Immigrants Through Integration
In spite of all of these forces working against positive and constructive use of immigrant diversity, the potential for immigrant diversity to benefit local communities is real. With an investment in immigrant integration, local governments can realize social, economic and civic benefits. The rationale for immigrant integration is not to benefit the new immigrants, but rather to benefit the entire community—new immigrants, long-term residents, as well as government agencies and officials. Drawing upon this diversity, cities, towns, villages and counties can position themselves to be stronger and more resilient.
So how does a local community take advantage of immigrant diversity? At a general level, the most effective strategy is one that reflects neither a pro-immigrant nor anti-immigrant position. This does not mean a local government should do nothing. Quite the contrary, a deliberate strategy of integration is the best way to realize the benefits of immigration and to minimize the negative effects. Integration can take many forms, but at its most basic level it rejects the notion that immigrants and citizens must be perceived as competitors in a zero-sum game. Instead, it promotes a broader community perspective in which all residents can learn from each other and draw upon their differences to build a stronger, more vibrant community.
Appreciating Immigrant Diversity
The first step toward integration is to appreciate the potential of immigrant diversity as a positive force. Immigrants who come to the U.S. represent a small and unrepresentative fraction of the population of their native countries; they are the ones who dared risk the uncertainty of a new place, new language, and separation from family for the chance at a better life. Not surprisingly, the same spirit that motivates individuals to migrate to pursue opportunities also makes them have a greater propensity for entrepreneurship than long-term residents and citizens. As many large manufacturing plants struggle to survive in the global economy, small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures are increasingly important to local economies. Immigrants are often eager to open small businesses but may be uncertain of how to do so properly. Local governments that actively provide information to immigrants about the requirements for starting a new business and help immigrants navigate the bureaucratic process can benefit from new restaurants and specialty shops that generate revenue, increase the range of culinary and shopping options available to residents, and may even attract consumers from outside the immediate geographic area.
Immigrants Contribute to a Balanced Labor Pool
A second aspect of immigrant diversity that can benefit a local community stems from the complementary educational levels and labor market contributions which immigrants and U.S. citizens have to offer a community. In general, U.S. citizens are more likely than immigrants to have at least a high school education or some college, and to work skilled trades or professional, management or administrative careers. Immigrants, on the other hand, tend to be at the extremes—having either minimal formal education and correspondingly low skilled jobs, or advanced scientific degrees and highly specialized and technical careers. When combined, the resulting balanced labor pool is equipped to meet the full range of employment needs of a community.
Building a Sense of Community
A third pillar of immigrant diversity is the cultural exchange, increased awareness and understanding, and enhanced sense of community that can result from facilitating discussions among long-term residents and new immigrant arrivals. The factors which distinguish thriving local communities from those in decline are not merely the tangible measures of median family income or home values, unemployment rates, new construction activity, or occupancy of rental units.
Community vitality is also a function of community identity, cohesiveness, and harmony. People who feel a sense of belonging in their community, share a common vision with other residents, and are engaged in collective governance will retain a positive outlook even in hard times. In contrast, communities that are divided and in which significant numbers of people feel unappreciated, ignored or vilified are unlikely to ever reach their full potential. Communities in which local government leaders have facilitated discussions with immigrant populations and between immigrants and long-term residents report less conflict, greater community cohesion, and improved relations.
Nadia Rubaii-Barrett, Ph.D., is associate professor and chair, department of public administration, College of Community and Public Affairs, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY. She is the author of the 2008 ICMA White Paper “Immigration: An Intergovernmental Imperative” and is a regular speaker on immigration issues at local, regional and national events.