Increasingly, cities across the country are creating municipal offices to house their efforts to welcome international communities, facilitate their integration, and make local government more accessible, equitable, and responsive to the needs of all residents. Traditional gateway cities like New York and Boston have had such offices (commonly referred to as an “Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs” or an “Office of New Americans”) for decades, while cities like Atlanta and Nashville—communities that have seen significant demographic change just in recent years—have established them more recently. Although each office prioritizes issues based on its unique local context, common areas of focus include improving access to city information and services; supporting immigrant entrepreneurs, attracting and retaining a talented workforce; promoting naturalization and civic engagement; and enhancing public safety. Cities interested in elevating their international profile through the creation of such an office within municipal government can draw upon a variety of existing models and best practices.
Formally creating an office within city government to oversee immigrant integration has been accomplished through a variety of different measures, from a mayoral announcement creating the office to establishing the office within the city’s charter—one of the most formal mechanisms to ensure continuity across administrations. Many offices have been created through mayoral announcement, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and Houston. In New York City, where the office has existed for more than three decades, the mandate for the office was eventually written into the City’s charter through popular referendum. Other cities have established their offices through executive order (Nashville and Philadelphia), by passing a city council resolution (Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle); or by issuing a city ordinance (Denver).
Many offices were created at the recommendation of an advisory body or taskforce, or have an advisory body that serves to inform their priorities and work. These advisory bodies can range from 15 to up to 40 or 50 people and often include representatives from the business community, non-profit and community-based organizations, and other local officials. Cities that have engaged an advisory body to inform their work include Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Nashville and Seattle.
Staffing models for these offices vary depending on the size of the city and its foreign-born population, the placement of the office within local government, and the city’s budget for this work. Newer offices often start with a small full-time staff of one to two people and grow over time as they demonstrate value and/or shift priorities. Most offices have around two to three full time staff members. Often these offices also employ the skills of college and graduate student interns, fellows (in particular AmeriCorps and VISTA fellows) and volunteers to support their work. Staff functions typically include external affairs and community engagement, program management, research and policy analysis, and legal expertise.
City offices serve multiple functions that make them critical to ensuring the city is accessible and responsive to all of its residents. These include:
The way city offices prioritize their areas of focus vary, often depending on community feedback, available resources, and partnerships. Generally, however, most cities have programming that falls into the following five key areas, which are typically identified during the strategic planning process.
In 2009 a coalition of community leaders, business, and faith groups worked together to beat back a city referendum that would have required all city business to be conducted only in English, a development that would have significantly impaired the efforts of new Americans to integrate into the economic and social fabric of the Nashville community. In the years following this achievement, Nashville has quickly risen as a national leader in innovative strategies to welcome, include, and integrate its international communities. In 2009 the city government established the Mayor’s New Americans Advisory Council made up of representatives from diverse immigrant communities to meet with city staff monthly and discuss issues of importance to Nashville’s international population. In 2012 the city launched MyCity Academy, a seven month educational and training program that gives new Nashvillians direct access to city government to learn about how the city works and empowers them to participate and engage with the government that serves them. So far 110 people from 33 countries have graduated from this program.
Building on this momentum, in September 2014 former Mayor Dean announced the creation of Nashville’s Office of New Americans, whose mission is centered around four primary objectives: engaging and empowering immigrants to participate in their local government and in their communities; fostering a knowledgeable, safe, and connected community; expanding economic and educational opportunities for New Americans to the benefit of all Nashvillians; and working with community organizations and other Metro departments to empower and support New Americans. The office continues to be advised by the New Americans Advisory Committee, and since its creation launched a new program: MyCity Connect. This new program builds on the success of MyCity Academy, offering new Nashvillians the opportunity to engage with the civic organizations that make Nashville the vibrant city that it is.
The Office of New Americans serves as a point of contact, convener, and coordinator between city government, community-based organizations, the private sector and Nashville’s immigrant community. It works with partners across sectors, from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to Casa Azafrán. In September 2015 the Office of New Americans hosted a forum with the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce to support immigrant entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Timeline in Brief:
Making the economic case. A large and growing body of research demonstrates that immigrants play a critical role in a city’s economic success, repopulating and revitalizing neighborhoods, stabilizing and growing the tax base, and spurring entrepreneurship and innovation everywhere from Main Street to the halls of major colleges and universities. Cities can use this research—and the narrative that being inclusive has an economic impact—to bring key stakeholders to the table and generate buy-in.
Get multi-sectoral buy-in early on through strategic planning and community outreach. Essential to the successful creation of an office is obtaining support and engagement from business, the community, and other city agencies for the initiative. Engaging stakeholders in the initial conversations that develop the mandate and areas of focus of the office help ensure the focus reflects the needs of the community, as well as identifies existing resources and areas for collaboration and partnership early on. This is often done through a strategic planning process, which can incorporate different elements of community engagement such as a listening tour, surveys, or interviews.
Mayoral leadership counts. The mayor’s leadership and commitment to supporting immigrant integration is critical both in elevating the stature of the office to the public, and in ensuring that its work is taken seriously and implemented fully. In many cities, designating a chief or head of the office at the executive level, reporting directly to the mayor, is an essential piece of making immigrant integration a priority.
Defining the narrative. Cities that embrace diversity and inclusion are more attractive to international newcomers as well as long-term residents, making them more competitive on the global stage. More directly, cities have a responsibility to provide quality customer service to all of their residents, and it is advantageous to ensure that everyone have access to information about public health and safety, emergency preparedness, education and economic opportunity, and other key priorities. Additionally, offices dedicated to facilitating immigrant integration can create efficiencies and reduce duplication across agencies and help front-line city staff carry out their responsibilities more effectively and uniformly, improving equity and access for everyone.
Integration offices are designed to enhance collaboration across agencies, saving time and resources. Despite the up-front investment, cities are likely to save money in the long run by leveraging resources across agencies and maximizing their impact through collaboration. The role of the office as a convener and communications hub can be accomplished with a lean staff and a greater focus on partnerships with other agencies, community organizations, foundations, and the private sector.
Mapping existing assets in the community helps identify opportunities to increase impact without creating entirely new programs and initiatives. Assessing what the city and community based organization partners are already doing that can be immediately leveraged in support of immigrant integration efforts can help maximize impact with minimal investment. Often the first step is communicating and reaching populations with information about existing programs and services that they may not know are available.
Don’t re-invent the wheel. With the number of offices and models that already exist, there is no need to start from scratch when thinking through how to start a new office or initiative. Cities have launched programs across a variety of areas, including citizenship, entrepreneurship, language access, workforce development, and other key local priorities, that can serve as models for replication in new communities.
Partnerships make the most of limited resources. Many offices have limited staff and budgets, and rely heavily on partnering with other organizations, as well as other city agencies, to maximize resources as well as reach.
Ongoing community engagement is key. Creating open lines of communication with organizations serving immigrant and refugee communities is central to ensuring that the work of the office is effective and reflects community needs. For example, holding standing community engagement forums allowing residents to provide feedback on local priorities or establishing an advisory committee representative of the community to meet with office staff on a regular basis.
Office staff should have connections to and build relationships with immigrant community leaders and target constituencies. Building trust with immigrant communities is key to the success of offices dedicated to facilitating immigrant integration. Staff that represent or have connections to the communities they serve, who know community leaders, and who understand cultural norms and languages are likely to be the most effective.