Chicago’s Plan for a Thriving, Welcoming City

February 20th, 2013

In the year since Chicago’s Office of New Americans opened, Director Adolfo Hernandez has spearheaded Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ambitious plan to make Chicago “the most immigrant-friendly city” in the U.S.

In a Cities of Migration webinar interview with Suzette Brooks Masters of New York’s J.M. Kaplan Fund, Adolfo describes how the 27-point New Americans Plan emerged through intense community consultations and the need to find innovative solutions to program funding in a tough economy.

Suzette Brooks Masters: Let’s dig a little deeper on Chicago’s New Americans Plan. First, how did the plan come to be? What was the role of the new mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel?

Also, when you first took the position of director, you reached out to many stakeholders before engaging them formally in an advisory committee with accountability for the plan. Tell us about your process for ensuring immigrants and immigration issues were front and centre? What are the roles of NGOs and other advocates in pushing local governments to do more?

Adolfo Hernandez: I did a lot of work during the mayoral campaign to create a clear vision for what a municipality could do and what a candidate could do to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the country. The campaign strategy of a local advocacy group, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, included laying out some tangible goals. The idea for creating something like an Office of New Americans came out of one of their meetings with the then-candidate Mayor Emanuel.

“An important role for NGOs to play is to give our elected leaders… clear ways that they can be supported and tangible things that they can do.”

This is one of the important things that NGOs can do. Instead of saying that the status quo isn’t working or that we need to do something more, it is developing ideas and strategies for our elected officials to implement. You may have an elected official who is open to an idea or is willing to listen to an issue but may not have a clear idea of how to move forward. I think that an important role for NGOs to play is to give our elected leaders, as well as some of our other municipal leaders, clear ways that they can be supported and tangible things that they can do. This is one of the most difficult things that a NGO could tackle, but it’s probably one of the most effective and useful.

In terms of the accountability, it was so important to me to make sure that we had community buy-in – from NGOs, the private sector, faith groups and academics. I wanted community buy-in for several reasons, partially for selfish reasons. I don’t think any city has a large bucket of money to dedicate to immigrant integration. It was absolutely clear to me from the onset that we would need strong partnerships with people across sectors to implement any of these initiatives. There are very few parts of the initiative which would rely on city governments or services alone. A lot of it would have to rely on really creative and innovative partnerships – the private sector, small businesses, NGOs and city government.

This can add some challenges to the process – having 50 voices in the room and trying to build consensus is not an easy process. But what you end up with is a much better quality product. And you also end with community buy-in, partners and people sitting at the table who are willing to roll up their sleeves to get the work done. This is absolutely critical. We have a great NGO community in the city of Chicago and they have all been willing to sit at the table and become partners to help implement this plan.

Suzette Brooks Masters: Chicago has been leading a movement of cities seeking to attract and retain immigrants as a key factor in preserving their economic vitality. There are a number of initiatives in the Chicago Plan that have to do with economic vitality and making sure immigrants can contribute. But there is another element – “the secret sauce” – that can make for a really coherent and successful integration initiative, and that’s the welcoming component.What are your recommendation for other cities who want to be more welcoming? How can leadership makes sure that the whole community is working well together and immigrants feel included? This is about more than services or getting loans to start businesses.

Adolfo Hernandez: What is clear to us is the economic story hasn’t been told as often or as prominently. I think of our plan as an economic plan for the city of Chicago and its primary strategy is that of supporting our immigrant population. This may seem counter intuitive to many folks in the advocacy world. As a son of once-undocumented immigrants, it’s not the reason I do this work, but this is a message that’s going to win over people who aren’t advocates.

That’s a really important point to make. We need to tell the story of immigrants being assets and contributors to our cities and to our country, and not people who rely just on our services or the goodness of other peoples’ hearts. They are people who take risks to come here and work and sacrifice and make our cities richer and stronger. That is a really important story to tell. That is why we focus on economic messaging. But I think you are absolutely right about the special sauce – making sure we are a welcoming city. Just last week I was in a meeting with some of the newest tech businesses in our city – 25 % of all new tech start ups are led by immigrants and that’s across the country – but one of the things this group kept talking about was that there was more to quality of life then just the business environment. There was how they felt when they walked into a library, when they interacted with police, when they went to one of our Chicago public schools, when they went into one of our city agencies, and whether they can talk to someone in their language. These were prominent business people from and around our city who were talking about quality of life, this “welcoming.”

This is one of the things that we have been thinking about actively. As we developed policies and programs, we were also thinking about what this culture looks and feels like. We want to make sure that we are creating opportunities for exchange within our business corridors and that we are developing training for our police officers and teachers. So much of what I want is to make sure that we are institutionalizing some of these changes and not just doing a one-day workshop or one-day community exchanges. But rather that we are creating opportunities and venues for these exchanges to happen on a regular basis and that we are doing them in prominent city locations which sends a very clear message to the city as a whole – we are an international city, we are a city of immigrants, we are a welcoming city – and that is one of the reasons that we thrive economically and socially as well as culturally.

Suzette Brooks Masters: Can you reflect on how different cities and city conditions may require different policy solutions. If you were just starting out, would you do it differently?

Adolfo Hernandez: One of the ways that I describe what is happening in Chicago is that I feel like we are in a bit of a bubble –we have a city, a municipality, a county and a state that all have taken very progressive stances on immigrants and immigration laws in general. We have also felt a bit of a responsibility to push further, harder and faster, and to set models for other places around the country. But what is also very clear, that even just 30 minutes outside of Chicago, there may be a suburb where the environment is completely different. As we were creating a plan for the city, we wanted to have a plan that could be shared, where pieces of it could be adapted to different political and cultural realities. That’s something that the NGO community particularly, should be attuned to.

I think there are plenty of opportunities to do things that are immigrant friendly and aren’t necessarily controversial. I’m incredibly proud of our naturalization initiative in partnership with a local NGO It specifically focuses on helping people who are here legally. Even the staunchest anti-immigrant legislator would say we need a legal process. We have in the state of Illinois about 300,500 people who have undergone that legal process and just need a little more help to become citizens.

When residents become citizens they earn more, pay more in taxes and tend to own homes at a higher rate. We see poverty levels decrease and we see more women in the work force. These are all things that are great for cities. The naturalization initiative focuses on helping 10,000 people to become citizens over the next two and a half years. It is beneficial and non-controversial because we are helping people who have already taken the legal steps to become citizens. We also have a Welcoming City Ordinance, which makes sure that we don’t have our local law enforcement enforcing federal immigration law, which is very difficult to do politically. Because of our status as a gateway city, we decided we could take that approach.

What is really interesting is that I’ve seen smaller cities around the country that have experienced an inflow of immigrants take these positions as well. There are active NGO communities that are building relationships with local law enforcements and getting local law enforcements to understand that there is an overall detriment to public safety when a large segment of the population doesn’t feel safe interacting or communicating with police. As a municipal employee and someone who works at the mayor’s office, I feel a responsibility to go out into communities and not be afraid to have difficult conversations with community organizations – with churches, individuals and immigrant communities.

We don’t differentiate between legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants in our plan and that’s very much on purpose. We think immigrants as a whole contribute to our city. Again, that’s something that may not be true for all municipalities depending on their history, size and scale, but I think it’s something that you really need to be attuned to. What are the political realities? What are some of the shifting demographics? Where are their potential allies within city government and how do you build on those relationships? Maybe by doing things that are seen as slightly less controversial, you can build towards some of the more difficult policies – the ones that might be harder to implement.

Suzette Brooks Masters: Tell us about the work you are doing with other cities in this new Welcoming Cities initiative. How is it helping cities in different parts of the country, often with very different agendas or contexts, to move forward on greater immigrant integration and community inclusion?

Adolfo Hernandez: One of the things that was clear to me was that this [Plan] couldn’t just be about what’s going to work for Chicago. The mayor and city has a national profile. So, what could we do for other cities and municipalities across the country? We also wanted to throw down a challenge. Mayors and cities are competitive and our mayor has set an ambitious goal. So we have been sharing. I have learned so much about my counterparts in cities around the country about different initiatives – in New York, Miami, San Francisco, Boston, Houston – and what they were doing. This isn’t a completely original plan. What is original about it is that it’s looking in a comprehensive way at how a city can support immigrant integration.

We have been co-leading an effort with Welcoming America to create a dialogue and a space for cities. My counterparts from around the country have a space for information-sharing on best practices – what initiatives are working really well, what‘s not working as was recently launched and we are working on ensuring cities have that opportunity to learn form each other, share our best practices and lessons learned, as well as up-to-date information about what’s happening at the federal level that effects us on the local level and vice versa.

For more information about Chicago’s New American Plan, you can always feel free to reach out to me directly or visit

Related Links:

Adolfo Hernandez is the Director of Chicago’s Office of New Americans, an office dedicated to making Chicago the most immigrant friendly city in the world by better leveraging the contributions of immigrants through enhanced collaboration with community organizations, academic and faith based institutions, and the private sector. Under his leadership the ONA has launched the New Americans Small Business Series, an innovative series of quarterly events that will foster small business growth in ethnic communities by delivering language accessible information in community settings; launched the Chicago New Americans Initiative with the goal of offering assistance to 10,000 legal permanent residents to become naturalized, U.S. citizens; and spearheaded Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance, preventing law abiding Chicagoans from being unfairly detained and deported, while reaffirming basic protections and access to services.

Since 2007, Suzette Brooks Masters has directed immigration-related grant making at the J. M. Kaplan Fund, a private family foundation in New York City. At the Fund, she focuses primarily on immigrant integration issues, including innovative state and local policy, educational access, professional workforce integration, and receiving community engagement. Prior to joining the Fund, she consulted with non-profit organizations working on behalf of immigrants and refugees, and published extensively on immigration policy subjects. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Ms. Masters practiced corporate and environmental law in New York City until 1999 when she decided to focus exclusively on immigrant issues. She has been active in civic matters since the late 1980’s when she co-founded New York Cares. Ms. Masters has served on a number of non-profit boards, including the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the National Immigration Forum, Lawyers Alliance for New York, and New York Cares. Ms. Masters also obtained degrees in Economics from Kings’ College, Cambridge University, where she was a Marshall Scholar, and Amherst College.

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