U.S. cities have an opportunity to grow economically by becoming more welcoming to immigrants.

Living Cities is open sourcing our 2014 annual report, asking folks to respond to the question: “What will it take to achieve dramatically better results for low-income people faster?” This blog is a response to that question. In the coming weeks, we will showcase a diversity of points of view around this question. Learn more about the event and follow the conversation on social media with #NewUrbanPractice.

Recently, President Obama announced Administrative Relief, a new program that will – among other things – protect up to 5 million people from the threat of deportation. Regardless of the debate in Washington, where this policy will play out is in our communities. How cities respond during this welcoming moment will reflect our commitment to the values that define us as Americans.

Ensuring that our neighbors who qualify under Administrative Relief can participate is a good thing for all Americans. Not only do immigrants add social and civic value to towns and cities, they also help their communities become stronger economically. For one thing, immigrants create jobs, and are statistically more likely to start businesses than non-immigrants. In addition, research shows that immigrants contribute positively to local housing values, reduce crime, attract the young and creative to the communities they join and attract corporations that are looking for talent from around the world. When immigrants who qualify for Administrative Relief enroll, cities and towns across the country will benefit from the new ideas, vitality and innovation generated when more local residents feel welcome to participate in the work of building a great community.

A growing number of cities across the country are already gaining economically by becoming more welcoming to immigrants, something we call the welcoming effect. A case in point is Nashville, Tennessee, which President Obama visited recently. The President chose Nashville as the site of a major speech on his new policy because it has thrived since becoming more welcoming to its rapidly growing immigrant population. But that wasn’t always the case. In 2009, amidst growing backlash against demographic change, the city was poised to become the largest city in the country to pass an English-only charter amendment. A coalition of community members came together to defeat the measure and chart a new course for the city, while efforts like the Welcoming Tennessee Initiative helped lay the foundation of a more welcoming culture. During the President’s speech, he lifted up the important role Welcoming Tennessee played in the transformation of Nashville, as well as the role we at Welcoming America have played replicating the model across the country.

“When immigrants pick your city, that is a great honor.” - Nashville Mayor Karl Dean

By 2012, Nashville led the country in job growth, and has been widely recognized as a city poised for continued success. While many factors have contributed to Nashville’s ascendancy, local business and political leaders contend that this success could not have been possible without a new vision for the city’s role as a global destination, and intentional efforts to create a more welcoming community. Today, programs like MyCity Academy empower New Americans to understand and participate in Nashville’s government. “When immigrants pick your city, that is a great honor,” says Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, who in 2014 announced that he would open an Office of New Americans to continue the city’s efforts to integrate newcomers.

Another example of prosperity following a shift to welcoming is the city of Dayton, Ohio, a postindustrial Rust Belt metropolis that was previously facing a declining population. In 2011 the community came together – under the guidance of the city’s Human Relations Commission – to create the Welcome Dayton Plan, an initiative that promotes immigrant-friendly policies and practices. Participants in the planning process came from all walks of life, from business and non-profit institutions, to immigrant and African American leaders. The recommendations in the plan – which are being implemented – range from increasing English-language classes and multicultural soccer tournaments to the creation of a community-wide campaign on immigrant entrepreneurship that seeks to facilitate start-up businesses, open global markets and restore life to Dayton neighborhoods.

A recent study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation recognized Welcome Dayton’s immigrant welcoming approach as a key strategy for building prosperity, noting efforts are already attracting new immigrants to the city, helping to reverse population decline and revitalizing dormant business districts.

For those of you who wish to explore starting welcoming efforts in your community during this welcoming moment for our country, three key lessons from Nashville and Dayton are as follows:

1. Address the fears and misconceptions of residents in the community at the beginning.

Both Nashville and Dayton recognized that their efforts to welcome immigrants would not be successful if they didn’t engage long-time residents. In Nashville, for example, representatives from the Welcoming Tennessee initiative held dialogues across the city between immigrants and native Nashvillians, and put up Billboards extolling the values all residents shared, including immigrants. For more details on these and other strategies to engage the immigrant “receiving community,” see our Receiving Communities Toolkit.

2. Plan for Welcoming and invite everyone to the table.

The City of Dayton went out of its way to ensure everyone in the community who wanted to have a role in the planning process could do so. As a result, the plan reflected the needs and desires of all community members, including immigrants. When the plan came up for a vote in the city council, the vote was unanimous, and local support for the program since then has remained strong.

3. Market the benefits of welcoming during and after implementation of your plan.

Once the cities of Dayton and Nashville began to implement their plans, they pushed aggressively so everyone understood the community-wide benefits of the new policies. They also emphasized the economic advantage it gave their cities vis a vis neighboring cities. As a result, most residents in these communities take pride in the fact that they are leaders in welcoming in their regions of the country.

Nashville and Dayton are not alone in their Welcoming efforts.

Today, more than 40 local governments, from Atlanta to Detroit, have joined a new initiative called Welcoming Cities and Counties, hosted by Welcoming America. These city leaders are committing to make their communities more inclusive and economically vibrant places for immigrants and all residents. Welcoming Cities and Counties has developed an extensive network of support and growth opportunities for cities and their leaders. By providing a platform for city leaders to learn from their peers about best practices in immigrant integration, the initiative is helping to ensure cities have the tools they need to successfully integrate newcomers and leverage their greatest asset – their diverse population.

If you want your community to become an actively welcoming one, Administrative Relief is an important place to start. Welcoming America stands ready support your community as you work to ensure that all residents are able to fully participate and thrive, whether through administrative relief, or over the long term, through efforts that integrate newcomers into the civic, social and economic fabric of your community. Please visit our website to find resources and information about upcoming webinars, review a brief toolkit we’ve created with our partners, or contact our staff to learn more about how we can support your leadership in making your community a more welcoming one.


Image source: Flickr user Andrea Barisani under CC BY-NC 2.0.