Migrant Integration in Cities: Learning from Others

October 30th, 2019

In a new report for the Forum of Federations, author Leslie Seidle reflects on the role of cities and city networks in migrant integration since he directed a multi-author project in seven federal countries, entitled Immigrant Integration in Federal Countries (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press,2012).

Many countries have national migrant integration policies or programs. Many cities also have integration initiatives, whether sponsored by local government, civil society organizations or both. The programs vary considerably, and limited resources are often an obstacle. It is nevertheless clear that the level of such activity in many cities in North America and western Europe has been increasing.

Drawing on his expertise in federalism and in immigration issues, Leslie Seidle profiles five innovations in migrant integration from Canada, Germany, Spain and the United States. The four countries are either federal or—in the case of Spain—quasi-federal, allowing him to consider city-level practices within a multilevel context. The paper also includes discussion and case studies of city networks – Intercultural Cities, Welcoming America and Cities of Migration– that promote the exchange of promising practices and learning among cities.

Seidle concludes his policy analysis with a number of observations about current and emerging approaches to migrant integration in cities:

“Cities as a locus of innovation. In his interview for this project, David Lubell, [Welcoming America], referred to the local as “a welcoming ecosystem.” In many cases, this seems to be true. City governments are often seen as closer to people than senior levels of government, perhaps because cities often have a more open approach to governance. But the local ecosystem extends well beyond city hall. As we have seen in this paper, community organizations, foundations and businesses are the source of creative ideas, financial support and volunteer effort.

Relative detachment from other levels of government. A five-country study of the local dimension of migration policymaking observed that “the relevance of the local dimension does not seem to be strictly dependent on the . . . countries’ state structures” (Caponio 2010). This also seems broadly true for migrant integration activities. In Germany and Canada, the federal government alone funds and administers each country’s largest integration program (in both cases, language training is a major component). Local organizations are involved as delivery agents, but there are no formal connections with city governments. Cities often have their own programs and services, although they may struggle to finance them. In this context, Peter Scholten (2019) has observed that “local and national migrant integration policies increasingly seem to ‘live separate lives’ as two worlds apart.” This may be broadly true, but further research is needed about the relationship between local and senior levels of government. Among other things, we need to know the degree to which transfers from subnational governments (states, provinces, etc.) enable or constrain city governments’ policy and program choices.

Vision and leadership. Although good ideas on migrant integration originate in different places, they are more likely to come to fruition if they are championed by a highly motivated change agent. Barcelona’s Anti-Rumour Strategy was developed with leadership from the city’s Immigration Commissioner. Welcoming Nashville was the brainchild of a local activist in the fight against anti-migrant legislation; its success led to the formation of Welcoming America. Whatever the roots of an initiative, it is important to have a vision: a clear-sighted, even somewhat ambitious, plan for how to achieve results. Implementing the vision requires not only sustained leadership but willingness to adapt to feedback, changing circumstances and other factors.

Partnership and collaboration. Local government seems better suited than senior governments to collaborate with community partners in developing and implementing migrant integration activities. In some cases, this is a necessity: city governments may lack the funds to sponsor even modest integration programs, but NGOs can often deliver services at lower cost than the public sector. Some European cities are less strapped financially than those in Canada and the US because they receive a share of sales and even income taxes; they may also benefit from special-purpose transfers—as for asylum seekers in Germany. However, the rationale for relying on partnerships is broader. Community organizations bring local intelligence to the table when initiatives are being conceived or adapted. Their members can also encourage migrants to take advantage of integration services and to participate in intercultural and other activities.

The relevance of interculturalism. Zapata-Barrero and Cantle (2019) describe interculturalism as a “local policy paradigm.” It has indeed become influential. Even organizations that use other language, such as Welcoming America, employ intercultural techniques. Research suggests that intercultural approaches are having a positive impact on, among other indicators, residents’ views about migrants’ contribution to their city. Paying greater attention to the concerns of the so-called” silent majority” requires adjusting intercultural approaches (as the Barcelona and Erlangen cases illustrate). Interculturalism nevertheless has limitations. Advancing integration objectives such as reducing the socio-economic and spatial marginalization of migrants requires other tools. Some of these are in the hands of local government, but action by higher levels of government is usually required.

Diffusion of innovative practices. It is not an overstatement to describe migrant integration as increasingly a shared priority—within governments, between governments, and between governments and other sectors. City governments, often in partnership with others, are an important part of this dynamic. They are innovating and adapting in an environment that is always changing and often quite polarized. In the process, thanks in part to city networks and similar organizations, government officials and community leaders are learning from others who are working to advance migrant integration.”


For full report (and references)Migrant Integration in Cities: Learning From Others / by F. Leslie Seidle.  Ottawa: Forum of Federations, 2019 (Occasional paper no. 44).

F. Leslie Seidle is a public policy consultant based in Montreal and a senior advisor with the Forum of Federations. He directs the research program Canada’s Changing Federal Community for the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP). He previously held senior positions in the Government of Canada, including director general of Strategic Policy and Research, Intergovernmental Affairs, in the Privy Council Office. He is the author of Rethinking the Delivery of Public Services to Citizens (1995) and has published numerous articles on immigration, federalism, constitutional reform, public management and electoral reform.


More Stories - From October 2019

Looking for Past Issues?

More »Upcoming Webinars

    • No events.