Another Step to Welcome our Immigrant Neighbors

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July 4, 2012 naturalization ceremony at Seattle CenterOur city just took an important step in our continuing effort to welcome and embrace our immigrant neighbors.

The City Council voted a few minutes ago to unanimously confirm Magdaleno Rose-Avila—he goes by Leno—as the first director of the City’s new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, an office that I led the effort to create during last fall’s budget deliberations.

Seattle is home to 103,173 foreign-born residents who actively contribute to our city’s economic, social and cultural well being (2006-2010 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates). This population is incredibly diverse, but shares some common strengths and common struggles.

Here’s just one example.

Amanuel came to the United States from Eritrea via Kenya. After years of working hard, learning English, supporting his parents back home and then bringing them here, getting married and having children, Amanuel finally saved enough to fulfill his dream of opening his own store. He found a good location and got some help and encouragement from other immigrant business owners.  As he got closer to opening his store, he became more and more nervous . . . about City government, of all things.  He had heard horror stories about paperwork, rules and red tape.

Amanuel didn’t know where to turn, so he decided to march right down to City Hall. Fortunately, he ran into a City staffer who heard his story and helped him get all of his paperwork completed that same day. Amanuel was able to leave City Hall with the license he needed and peace of mind.

Amanuel lucked out; others might not be so fortunate. Amanuel’s story is just one example of why formation of the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs was so important to me last fall.

There are other reasons, too.

Take education. Anywhere from 20% to 40% of the elementary school students qualified to receive extra academic assistance from the City’s Families and Education Levy are “English language learners,” most the children of immigrants. These students have quite a mountain to climb and they need our proactive support.

Take crime victimization. Many recent immigrants to Seattle came from countries where they would have never reached out to the local police for help, where the police were corrupt or feared as enforcers of authoritarian rule. City government has an obligation to help our new neighbors learn about our protective systems and resources, a need most urgent for women and girls who are victims of domestic violence and abuse. Our police officers can be their defenders.

Under Leno’s leadership, the new city office can help with these issues and more. The office will facilitate immigrant integration, help create a citywide culture that understands the value that such integration brings to both immigrant and receiving communities, celebrate the cultures and contributions of Seattle’s immigrants and refugees, and advocate within City government on behalf of immigrants and refugees. It is an ambitious charge for a small, two-person office, but it is essential for this growing population.

As trend-setting incubators of innovation, local governments should proactively welcome immigrants into our cities. Shamefully, Congress remains unwilling to take meaningful action for comprehensive immigration reform, despite the very clear facts justifying reform and despite encouraging changes in the national discourse. More and more leaders in the business community are coming to the realization that immigration is a huge positive (or, in some cases, essential) for our economy. Christian religious leaders from across a wide political spectrum have signed a joint statement urging immigration reform. President Obama has approved appropriate changes in the use of the executive’s prosecutorial discretion, granting relief and peace of mind to many young immigrants.

Another positive step we can take at the local level is to discontinue our practice of honoring so-called “voluntary detainer” requests from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials placed on minor offenders who are otherwise eligible for release or others who have served their time. The honoring of ICE detainer requests should be limited to individuals arrested and charged with serious or violent crimes and persistent, high frequency offenders.

The economic and moral imperatives for immigration reform are clear. A 2007 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers found that immigration increases US GDP by roughly $37 billion each year. Immigrants fill important roles at all points of the economic spectrum, from high wage, high skilled positions to seasonal, low wage jobs. Other countries work hard to attract immigrants with advanced degrees because these individuals spur economic growth—we should be doing the same. Similarly, the current number of visas for agricultural or seasonal work ignores the economic realities of the labor market. The native-born workforce is aging and the birth rate alone is not enough to fill the labor demands of the U.S. economy. We need immigrants to fill that gap.

The moral case is equally compelling. Rather than welcoming the stranger among us, the current immigration system tears families apart and keeps 12 million of our neighbors living in fear of sudden disruption of their daily lives. We will all be safer and healthier if we integrate these individuals into American society and help them achieve citizenship.

There remains much work to do to enhance successful and effective immigrant integration practices. Patterns of immigration change over time and we must be able to adapt. Immigration, at its core, is representative of the fluidity of life. As President Kennedy once wrote, immigration reminds “every American, old and new, that change is the essence of life, and that American society is a process, not a conclusion.”

Seattle must continue to improve the way we welcome our newest neighbors and the new Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will be of tremendous importance in this process.