Cities have a Powerful Role to Play in Immigrant Integration

Ratna Omidvar, President of Maytree reflects on the relation of migrants and cities on the occasion of International Migrants Day.

By Ratna Omidvar, President of the Maytree Foundation.

On the occasion of International Migrants Day, it is important to remember that 214 million migrants from all corners of the globe are in search of a better life, safety and security. And just as they did in the last century, they will look overwhelmingly to urban regions as the place to realize their dreams and aspirations. As they locate to cities in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa, they will bring with them energy, vibrancy and the will to survive and succeed, which, if successfully tapped, will release social, cultural and economic benefits for all.

Today, immigration, migration and integration are part of the language we use to describe a much larger story about the increasingly fluid movement of people, markets, culture and language across borders and time zones to large urban centers. In an era of globalization and unprecedented urban growth, that story can be about open, inclusive cities that are creating a palpable sense of excitement and opportunity. Or it can be a story of tension and alienation that can be passed along to the second and even third generation. When integration is done well, it fuels economic growth, spurs innovation and talent renewal, creates new knowledge and promotes an open, richer and more cohesive social fabric. When it is done poorly, the results are costly and far more complex.

Cities have a critical role to play in integrating newcomers, engaging their residents, and creating opportunities and a sustainable future for all. Regardless of national narratives or policy frameworks, the lived experience of integration is inherently local. The quality of the welcome experienced by migrants has a huge influence on their future success and, ultimately, on the prosperity of our cities.

Cities are where immigrants prefer to live, work, study, play and raise their families. Cities are where they experience integration or exclusion, with results that impact not just the migrant, but also the local community. Local actors and local institutions – such as city governments, local businesses, community and civil sector organizations, schools, libraries, and parks – can play a powerful and positive role in immigrant integration.

City governments especially have a critical role to play. As policy makers, democratic institutions, service providers, major employers and buyers of goods and services, local governments must set the standards for the private and civil sectors.

For example, in Dublin (Ireland), all residents, including non-citizens, have the right to vote in local elections. Noting the low voter participation in migrant communities, Dublin’s City Council’s Office for Integration launched the Migrant Voter’s Project, which has young leaders in immigrant communities deliver voter education to their peers.

In many communities, everyday activities like opening a bank account can be challenging for residents with irregular legal status. What’s more, they are more vulnerable to crime and less likely to approach the police due to their lack of identity documents. The City of New Haven (United States) created a municipal identity card for all residents, regardless of immigration status or age. With this universal identity card, the city increased community safety and made a clear statement that all residents are valued and full participants in city life.

Local governments around the world work to ensure that immigrant entrepreneurs have the opportunity to set up businesses that will contribute to the local economy. For example, in Helsinki (Finland), EnterpriseHelsinki is a free business counselling service for entrepreneurs whose client base is 35% immigrants – triple the share of their general population. In Vienna (Austria), the Mingo (“move in and grow”) Migrant Enterprises program offers multilingual services to ensure that immigrant entrepreneurs have the information and advice they need to succeed.

Fortunately, cities need not act alone. Local actors in cities around the world put out the welcome mat for immigrants, and recognize immigration as an asset, rather than as a problem to be solved. They are using innovative new ideas alongside tested, proven methods. These leaders encourage integration in many places – in workplaces, boardrooms, classrooms, parks and public offices.

For example, the DiverseCity onBoard program in Toronto (Canada) connects qualified, pre-screened candidates from visible minority and immigrant communities with the governance bodies of public agencies, boards and commissions, and civil sector organizations. The initiative is now being replicated in 20 cities around the world.

Local, neighbourhood level initiatives can have broad impact. The Walking School Bus in Auckland (New Zealand) brings together neighbours of all stripes for a common goal: get children to school. Like a motorized bus, the Walking School Bus travels at a set time, with set stops, and is supervised by an adult volunteer. This program provides parents – particularly new immigrant parents – with the opportunity to get to know each other, gives children a safe and healthy way to get to school, and reduces traffic congestion and pollution near schools. This good idea is being replicated in Waterloo (Canada) and Victoria (Australia).

These are just a few examples of the good work that local actors and local governments are doing to further immigrant integration in their cities.

As we look ahead to the new year, let us look to each other for inspiration. Learn what other cities are doing that could be adapted to or replicated in your city. Share what you’ve learned in your own city with others.

We have the power to make sure that immigrants are welcomed, protected and encouraged to succeed – we must resolve to use it.

Photo credit: Stiftung Polytechnische Gesellschaft.