Charlotte: A New Immigrant Gateway

By: Denise Long, Executive Director

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Ronnie Bryant, Director of the Charlotte Regional Partnership said it well: “We are an evolving southern city.”  For over 200 years, Charlotte has been a quintessential city of the south. Immigrant residents were rare. Consider that in 1980, only 2% of the total population was foreign-born.  But in the last 30 years, Charlotte has become an immigrant destination. Currently, about 11% of Charlotte’s total population is foreign-born. The result is that the Queen City is now a globalized “gateway” city, one with an array of cultures and ethnicities, as well as hundreds of international companies.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a community round-table and luncheon sponsored by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.  This type of community dialogue is also being replicated in other places around the country that are, like Charlotte, new immigrant gateway cities.  The purpose is to bring together local and national partners in order to identify steps to best facilitate the integration of immigrants into our community, particularly as immigrants become key players in the economic vitality of our country.

The roundtable discussion was a small but high-powered gathering that included business leaders, public officials, and community leaders from Charlotte, as well as leaders from other project cities across the nation, including the Mayor of Nashville, Tennessee. We also heard remarks from Ari Matusiak, Special Assistant to the President and Director of Private Sector Engagement at the White House.

As the prospect of immigration reform becomes more real, this kind of dialogue becomes increasingly important.  It is critical to hear voices across sectors and cities as we think together about how to enhance the ways that immigrants can contribute to the economy, as well as the quality of life for all U.S. citizens.  How will the business sector benefit from economic opportunities that arise from new immigration laws that enable workers to fill critical job needs?  How should cities prepare?

Fatima Shama with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York City stated the case very succinctly: “Immigration reform is a federal issue, but immigrants are a local issue.”  It is absolutely critical that local cities and municipalities be pro-active in helping their newest citizens become successful, contributing members of their new communities.

I came away from the meeting glad to see that many of Charlotte’s leaders are eager to affirm the positive contributions that immigrants are already making to our community and economy.  These benefits will be multiplied should key measures of comprehensive immigration legislation be passed.

I also left the meeting even more convinced of the key role that International House plays in Charlotte’s new global landscape.  For years, we have worked to foster understanding and build bridges between Charlotte’s native-born residents and the city’s newest international arrivals. This includes educational programs and legal services that help immigrants successfully integrate into our city and country. We also create global connections through our citizen diplomacy and international visitor programs, providing a lens for viewing our own community in the context of the wider world.   This is good work, and it will be even more important in the days to come as Charlotte embraces her new identity as a truly global city.

Boston Bombings and Immigration Reform

{Photo Source)

By: Denise Long, Executive Director

We were all shocked and saddened by the recent Boston Marathon bombings on April 15th. Like many of you, I found my heart breaking for the innocent victims who were killed or injured. But, in recent days, I have been distressed to see opponents of immigration reform who are using the fact that the suspects were Chechen immigrants to derail reform efforts. For instance, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) insisted that “the fact that foreign nationals were behind the attack underscores the argument that creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants could endanger the public.”

Casting prospective immigrants as “dangerous foreigners” in order to derail controversial legislation is nothing new. But, it is important to separate truth from fact in the arguments that are used. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) declared that immigration reform should not go forward “until the national security weaknesses exposed by the Boston bombings are addressed.” However, as Chicago immigration attorney Elizabeth Walder and others rightly point out, if there was a “failure” in the system leading up to the bombings, it was a failure of intelligence. The FBI had completed a background check on the older brother and concluded he posed no immediate threat and did not need further investigation.

One could argue that dedicating more resources to the surveillance of potential terrorists within our own borders might have prevented the Boston tragedy, as well as the Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber’s mayhem. It is a legitimate goal to keep our citizens safe from extremists. But the proposed Senate bill on immigration reform actually increases this security. It is designed to better identify those who have entered our country and those who have left, something that we are unable to do today. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) makes this argument, and also points out that the bill includes four separate background checks as immigrants move from undocumented aliens to U.S. citizens.

The tragedy in Boston should not be used to derail the immigration reform process which is supported by nearly two thirds of U.S. citizens.  The Senate bill is imperfect, but it is attempting to address one of the most pressing issues of our society. There are many law-abiding undocumented immigrants living in the United States who are willing to work hard, pay  necessary penalties and back taxes, and get in line for legal status after proper screenings.

We should not be misled by attempts to subvert the immigration reform process that foster fear and deepen suspicion. Study after study shows that immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes. In fact, U.S. born males between the ages of 18 and 39 are five times as likely to spend time in prison as immigrant males of the same age.  The Boston bombings should not be used to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment and unfair stereotypes. Immigration reform is too important to be sidelined now.