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Metro Areas Step Up to Immigration Challenges
Cities working to help immigrant populations come 'out of the shadows'

By Kathy Gurchiek  7/25/2013
Congress may be battling over immigration reform proposals, but a July 22, 2013, discussion at The Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., highlighted initiatives that metropolitan areas are taking to educate, embrace and incorporate their immigrant populations.

“It’s really the cities and towns that are the innovators in dealing with the implications of immigration and helping immigrants become fully integrated into American life,” said Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, during opening remarks at “Immigration Reform: What’s Next for Cities and Metros.”

Before serving in her current role, Munoz was the White House’s director of intergovernmental affairs, managing its relationships with governors and mayors.

“Many [local leaders] from both political parties understand the integral role that immigrants play in helping their cities innovate, grow the local economy and get through difficult economic times,” she said.

Munoz said it’s imperative that Congress provide states with the support they need “in the framework of a rational policy” through immigration reform. She hopes that the immigration bill the Senate passed June 27, 2013, will also pass in the House but acknowledged that it will take some work. SHRM Online reported that House Republicans said the Senate bill “is dead on arrival.”

Local governments live with the results of what Congress does and what Congress fails to do,” Munoz said. “If Congress acts, we can finally address the challenges that cities have been facing as they grapple with the symptoms of a broken immigration system.”

The Brookings Institute forum occurred the same week that the California-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network and several other organizations staged a week of actions, including a traveling fast, to call attention to problems—such as workplace raids despite a reprieve President Obama granted in 2012 that working immigrants face when they are in the country illegally.

The panel discussion that followed Munoz’s remarks stressed the importance of collaboration, trust and investment in fixing an immigration system that has created what some call a shadow, or underground, economy where illegal immigrants in the U.S. are paid in cash and, fearful of being deported, become marginalized from the rest of society.

The panel consisted of:

Aida Cardenas, executive director of Building Skills Partnership in Los Angeles.

Jason Mathis, executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and executive director of Salt Lake City’s Downtown Alliance.

Fatima A. Shama, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Cardenas leads a training collaboration with the Service Employees International Union—United Service Workers West, businesses and the community to advance the skills and opportunities of low-wage, building-service workers in California. More than 2,000 immigrant janitors and other low-wage workers have received training, with union offices serving as training hubs.

“It’s a labor-management partnership that looks at what the needs are,” such as better customer service and computer literacy skills, Cardenas said. “With the cuts that are happening with adult education and other programs … these opportunities wouldn’t exist for these workers. These are union jobs with living wages and some sort of stability and access to health care. That’s really important for the workforce that is going to be coming out of the shadows.”

Cardenas stressed the importance of working with nontraditional partners.

“It’s surprising how much farther and faster we can get things done, and being clear and setting principles and guidelines on the front end,” she said. It’s about “being patient with ourselves and really taking those small but solid steps forward.”

Shama pointed out initiatives that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has introduced to support immigrant businesses, including:

Offering free small-business courses in Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Russian.

Aligning the city’s small-business and economic-development offices with the mayor’s office to develop and provide services for immigrant business owners.

Coordinating free conversation groups that help adult immigrants practice English.

She also touted a toolkit, “Blueprints for Immigrant Integration,” which the city released in April and which is available to other cities across the country.

Panel members stressed the importance of serving immigrants at all economic levels, not just those who are highly skilled.

“For us, [immigration reform] is an economic argument,” Shama said, pointing out that nearly 40 percent of New York City’s populace is foreign born, about half are small-business owners, and nearly half of its labor market is made up of immigrants.

“They make everything from Main Street to Wall Street prosperous,” she said. “You can’t have the doctor without the janitor [keeping the hospital clean]. We need to recognize what it means to help these individuals come out of the shadows. The individuals who care for our homes, care for our children, are very much [part of the] fabric of what helps us maintain the [city’s] vibrancy.”

Mathis concurred. There are 125,000 immigrants in Salt Lake’s metro area and they make up about 17 percent of that city’s population.

“We want to be an inclusive place … whether it’s high-skilled or hourly employees. The current system does not work for anyone,” said Mathis, whom the White House named a 2013 Cesar Chavez Champion for Change. The award is named after the renowned labor and civil rights activist.

Cities across the U.S. don’t have to wait for immigration reform to do their own work, Shama observed.

“They can actually do a tremendous amount of things right now with their immigrant communities.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related Articles:

Senate Passes Immigration Reform, HR News, June 2013

SHRM, ACIP Focus Advocacy on Immigration Reform, HR News, June 2013

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