Immigration Doesn’t Have to Divide Us; Just Look to Communities

 Immigration has dominated the news throughout this US election cycle, as the deep fears and reservations felt by many Americans about the nation’s changing demographics have come out in the open. Followers of both major presidential candidates have illustrated rising interest in the subject on social media, where - for example - comments about immigration on Twitter jumped 9.5-14 percent higher than the typical August rate.

A visceral response on immigration is not surprising given the magnitude of the demographic change in American communities; the 1990s saw the US foreign-born population grow by more than 50%, with many people settling in places without a recent history of immigration - culminating in unfamiliar encounters with new neighbors and pressures to adapt. Followed a few years later by the “great recession,” and traveling along a broader arc of demographic transition in America, this experience of change was all the more unsettling because it inspired a sense of both economic and cultural loss.

Acknowledging and having some empathy for this sense of loss is key to helping our changing communities move forward toward a brighter future where everyone can fully contribute. We need to sit down together in our communities to overcome challenges, and map out a common future – one in which we can all belong, regardless of race, creed or country of origin. That’s what defines us as American.

With considerable empathy, and a lot of thoughtfulness, communities in every region of the country – places such as Nashville, Dayton, Boise and San Jose – have proactively come together to define what it means to be welcoming. Welcoming to newer immigrants and refugees, but also to long-time residents who may feel left behind. As a result of these processes, these communities have become better places to live for all residents.

How did these communities do it? They opened up a dialogue, neighborhood by neighborhood, between newcomers and everyone else. They involved leaders from across the community – from faith, to business, to neighborhood association leaders, to immigrants and refugees themselves – in the development of Welcoming Plans to make it easier for everyone to succeed and feel included. Changing demographics was the kick in the pants these communities needed to open up a conversation about how welcoming they were to all residents. These communities came to realize that by reducing barriers to full economic and social participation, they could make sure the entire community was reaching its full potential.

And now these places are more united and prosperous. For example, the Welcome Dayton Initiative, a city-led program that was a product of a year-long planning process, has helped reverse more than 50 years of population decline and led to thriving business districts and a culturally vibrant city. Nashville’s efforts to welcome and incorporate a growing immigrant population has created tangible economic gains across sectors, according to a report from the Nashville Chamber of Commerce.

More and more communities are understanding that welcoming leads to prosperity, and they are starting these dialogues locally as well. Each week, we hear from new communities interested in joining Welcoming America’s network and finding out how they can create a local strategy to make their communities places where everyone can thrive and belong.

Americans are hungry for leadership on immigration, and candidates need only look to our growing network across the U.S. to see that there are solutions that can unify communities rather than divide them.

Next week, we celebrate Welcoming Week - a moment when everyday people in communities are hosting events that foster this two-way street of empathy and building connections between new neighbors. Hundreds of communities are countering a narrative of fear and divisiveness through ongoing leadership and by hosting events that shine a more empathetic light on foreign-born newcomers to communities.

These communities provide a beacon to those who, like us, believe that in order for some to be welcomed, all must be.

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