Today’s Imperative for Welcoming

November 30th, 2016

By Susan Downs-Karkos, Welcoming America

Excerpted from: A Transatlantic Perspective: Welcoming Cities and the Policy and Practice of Refugee and Immigrant Integration. Baltimore: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, Johns Hopkins University, 2016

The world continues to witness a rise in global migration. Growing numbers of people leave their countries of birth and venture to faraway lands to seek new opportunities. For immigrants and refugees, the process of leaving home for a new and unknown place requires courage and grit. To step on a boat, to navigate a confusing bureaucracy, to cross an uninviting border — no matter the pathway, immigrants risk so much in trying for a new beginning. But what of the communities that will receive them? How will longer-term residents view their new neighbors, who speak a language and come from a culture or religion often so different than their own? To what extent will they welcome immigrants to their community, and to what extent will the arrival of newcomers be met with ambivalence, fear, or even hostility?

These are the questions with which countries across the globe struggle. Whether a sending country, a receiving country, or even both, nations are trying to figure out how to better manage not only migration, but the long-term integration of immigrants and refugees who come to their shores and hope to call it home. Nations are being tested in new ways and are required to reconsider how to welcome and integrate newcomers. The powerful images of children and families fleeing violence and seeking asylum in Europe have been burned into the consciousness of people worldwide. There is greater concern than ever before about the plight of refugees everywhere, and the need to create a more welcoming policy and culture so people can rebuild their lives has rarely been so clear. How can we transform one of the greatest challenges of our time into a significant opportunity – one that can make a difference in the lives of millions of immigrants, in Europe and across the globe – and to the local communities that welcome them?

A growing economic imperative

While the humanitarian need is well known, there is a growing economic imperative for welcoming newcomers. As populations age – whether in the U.S., Italy, Japan, or Germany – governments must ask themselves where they will find the talent to keep their communities vibrant and economically competitive in the years ahead. A growing body of research documents the significant economic contributions immigrants and refugees are making to communities – as employers, workers, and consumers. Yet too many receiving communities remain conflicted about immigrants. Leaders need to recognize the special opportunity to support the dreams of these newcomers and to see how with a little investment, their talents can be harnessed to supply the workforce that 21st century economies increasingly need. Through welcoming investments in language learning, workforce training, and connection building with the receiving society, among others, migrant families’ hard work can help fuel national economic vitality well into the coming decades.

The economic benefits immigrants bring also go beyond the workforce – immigrants are also a disproportionate share of small business owners. Their businesses have helped revitalize communities like Columbus, Nashville, and Dayton, where main street businesses like grocery stores, restaurants, and dry cleaners, are employing community members, strengthening the tax base, and growing the local economy. Welcoming newcomers also brings more social and cultural vitality to our communities, with diverse ideas and perspectives helping to fuel innovation and bringing a renewed sense of vibrancy. Common values are also an important part of this conversation. Whether in Germany or the United States, our democratic countries are shaped not by race or religion but by what one brings and how they live their life.

Welcoming communities

While some federal governments have been paying attention to immigrant integration and developing policies and funding streams to support it, in the end it’s the local context that determines the extent to which newcomers feel they belong.

How a family is treated in their new home community – in the schools, on the job, and out on the street – will be a major determinant of their trajectory of success. A growing number of local governments fully recognize the importance of promoting a welcoming community.

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Susan Downs-Karkos is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Welcoming America, where she works with organizations and communities to engage Americans in immigrant integration efforts. Susan also leads the provision of ongoing coaching, training and technical assistance to new and existing community partners, with a particular emphasis on the nation’s refugee network.


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