Publication / NationSwell
December 24, 2013
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A New Weapon in the Immigration Wars: Hospitality

Washington may try to reform immigration policy. But Welcoming America wants to help communities change attitudes first.

Social justice is programmed into David Lubell’s hard drive. The grandson of Jewish immigrants, he grew up with a keen appreciation of America’s open-door policy toward people from foreign lands, and learned that charity wasn’t the only way to help the nation’s newest arrivals. His sensitivities deepened when he began volunteering at a West Philadelphia youth shelter—when he was still in 7thgrade. He studied social justice in college—and, after graduation, traveled to Ecuador to learn Spanish, a skill he figured he’d need to continue along his chosen career path.

“In Ecuador I was welcomed with open arms by my host family and the community where I taught,” he remembers. When he later moved to Tennessee, however, it was a different story. “When I arrived in Memphis after Ecuador, the reception Latino immigrants were receiving was anything but welcoming,” says Lubell. “This disturbed me greatly. And as I began organizing in the Latino community in Memphis, this was something I deeply wanted to change.

 We’ve taken for granted that the immigrants would come here. But immigrants are in demand in places like Australia and Canada and Finland…. Immigrants are going to be what helps offset the aging baby boomer generation.

It was 2006, and a construction boom was luring new Latino and Kurdish populations to the area, and the good people of the Volunteer State weren’t always taking kindly to the newcomers. So Lubell, then working at the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, started a fresh drive to help out. Working directly with community leaders, and launching advertising campaigns, Lubell and his co-workers encouraged Nashville citizens and local officials to be open to immigrants. They helped stop a government referendum to make English the official language in Nashville—a move Lubell believes helped the city attract a plant from Nissan, the Japanese car company, which was looking to ensure a hospitable environment for its international work force.

“I think the Nashville experience was a very important experience for me. We were trying to make Nashville more welcoming because we wanted the immigrants to have a better life… but we also saw how Nashville’s economy really took off after we saw the changes to immigration acceptance,” Lubell says. (The city was rated the No. 1 largest job producer in the country in 2012.)

The seeds of a new venture were planted. After graduating from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Lubell began devoting himself to building on his Tennessee experience full time. Today, it’s a full-blown nonprofit organization spread across 19 states. Called Welcoming America, it aims to help communities welcome, and attract, new immigrant and refugee populations. But unlike many groups operating in this general area, Welcoming America focuses its efforts on the locals, rather than the newcomers—and tries to knock down the popular belief that immigrants take jobs away from longtime residents, and somehow depress wages for all concerned.  The group argues that cities and states benefit from the taxes immigrants pay—and that communities with a track record of putting the welcome mat out to foreigners are more attractive to businesses looking for new places to locate.

That can make cities more competitive not just domestically—but on the global stage. “We’ve taken for granted that the immigrants would come here,” says Lubell. “But immigrants are in demand in places like Australia and Canada and Finland. Other places around the world are understanding that they may need them and can make welcoming policies,” he says. “Immigrants are going to be what helps offset the aging baby boomer generation.”

There are plenty of groups in Washington who would dispute Lubell’s claims. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, for instance, argues that illegal immigrants have cost U.S. citizens millions of jobs, and offer estimates of job loss per state on its website. But if you’re looking for Welcoming America to join the battle as Congress threatens to take up immigration reform in the coming months, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Lubell’s group studiously avoids wading into the policy fight, and does not advocate in the political arena.

Welcoming America trains its attention instead at the state and local level. The group’s 20 full-time staffers help screen applications to join the network of established affiliates.  The criteria for joining include a large immigrant population, a demonstrated need for help, and the involvement of community leaders. The affiliates are the front lines, organizing welcoming events and figuring out the best messaging, while the parent organization provides conferences and other forms of guidance. The organization also works directly with city municipalities that pledge to be “Welcoming Cities” and promise to meet certain immigration-friendly guidelines. Atlanta is the latest to join.

“Previously you had this dynamic where Alabama and Arizona were competing to be the most unwelcoming states in the country,” Lubell says. “But now we are seeing more and more cities that are joining and seeing economic benefits of joining. We have lots of cities now that are joining because they are losing populations—such as places like Dayton, Ohio, and even Chicago.”

In Michigan, tensions were boiling over between established residents and newly arrived Polish, Bangladeshi, Yemeni and Bosnian immigrants. The leaders of Welcoming Michigan stepped in. They set up a Mini World’s Fair, and encouraged the various ethnic groups to set up booths explaining aspects of their culture. Some Bangladeshi women did a fashion show with some examples of their traditional garb, including explanations as to why some women cover their faces and dress in all black. And an African-American group sang gospel songs to visitors.

“There’s a lot of natural curiosities,” says Christine Sauvé, a Welcoming Michigan coordinator. “[The mini fair] gave them a space where they can ask questions comfortably without feeling silly.”

Over 300 people attended the event. Since then, the Michigan organization has held over 75 events, including English-as-a-second-language sessions and cooking classes.

“It’s a very exciting time living in Detroit right now,” says Sauvé, who is a Detroit local and names her Sicilian great-grandfather as part of the reason why she believes so strongly in immigrant communities. “There’s obviously economic hardship but also a lot of community conversations to address the struggle and come together.

Although Welcoming America grows intermittently through interested nonprofits, Lubell hopes that the message of the group will eventually become common sense and that cities will adopt the idea themselves, making his group obsolete.

“We think that in 20 years, this is something that can become common practice in communities around the country,” he says. “It makes common sense once you look at numbers and communities that haven’t been thinking about immigrants as a resource—as you start seeing more communities that are benefiting from them.”