By Aaron Kase
It's tempting to write off City Council's January 28 resolution in support of immigration reform as an empty gesture. The resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, reads, "The Council of the City of Philadelphia recognizes and honors its diverse immigrant communities and history, and further calls on the Untied States Congress to swiftly and comprehensively rectify the faults of (the) nation's immigration system." Council passed the resolution unanimously.
It sounds nice, of course, but it doesn't actually do anything, does it? Go ahead, Congress, rectify the faults of the immigration system while we sit around and pass resolutions. But to cynically dismiss the statement as mere rhetoric would ignore the major strides Philadelphia has made in providing services to immigrants in recent years.
City government is paying attention and knows what's at stake, says Izzy Colon, director of the Philadelphia Office of Multi-Cultural Affairs.
The Nutter administration engaged with immigrant communities immediately on coming to power, Colon says. "A central part of our goal is to create a city and government that is 'immigrant-friendly' because it's not only the right thing to do but it's good for the economy as well," he continues. "This is important to emphasize in the face of anti-immigrant sentiments that are so pervasive in our nation today."
Mayor Nutter has issued two executive orders aimed specifically at ensuring city services are available to new Philadelphians. In June 2008, Executive Order 9-08 guaranteed that all city departments would provide services to residents regardless of language ability. Language access cards are one manifestation of the policy: People with trouble speaking English use cards written in their native language which provide instructions on seeking language assistance as well as alerting city workers so they can find the right interpreter. That's a far cry from "English speaking customers only" policies at certain local establishments.
In November of last year Nutter released Order 8-09 reemphasizing that refugees and other immigrants have full access to city services including but not limited to police and fire, medical, mental health, libraries, and recreation centers. The order further states that the policy applies regardless of immigration status and that immigrants will not be asked about their legality except in cases required by law.
The City Human Relations Commission is also involved with immigrant affairs, specifically in mediating ethnic and racial conflicts that flare up in mixed neighborhoods and schools. One example is the hearings on school violence the Commission is holding over the next several months in reaction to the problems at South Philly and other city schools. The hearings will collect information on bullying and violence and take suggestions as to how to reduce it.
"The mayor is intentional about the need to reach out to new communities and I believe that while we might not be where we'd like to be, we are definitely on the right track," Colon says.
There's a reason the city is focusing on immigrants. Philadelphia has the feeling of a city in renaissance these days and a diverse restaurant scene, art co-ops in Fishtown, and a winning baseball team are not the only reasons.
After decades of population loss, Philadelphia actually gained residents last year, according to Census Bureau estimates. Guess where the new arrivals are coming from? It's not suburbanites moving back. Try India, Mexico, China, Vietnam, and Korea. Immigrants from these countries add to almost 170,000 people in the Philadelphia region.
A 2008 Brookings Report studied the effect of immigrants on Philadelphia's economy. The city was included in a peer grouping of "aging industrial cities . . .that attracted immigrants in great numbers in the early 1900s but no longer do so." Other cities included Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. It's not exactly a Who's Who of thriving cities of the 21st century.
Philadelphia stands out from the group, however, in its recommitment to bringing in immigrants. The foreign-born population of the Philadelphia region now stands around 500,000, far out pacing its peer cities. That growth has accelerated since the turn of the century and the economic effects are tangible: Nearly 75 percent of the growth of the city's labor force since 2000 is due to immigrants. According to the report, benefits of the influx are a moderation of population loss in the region, increased levels of entrepreneurship and revitalization of certain neighborhoods.
Philadelphia has always been a diverse place, for better or for worse--we don't exactly have a history of racial harmony. All signs point to that diversity continuing to increase through immigration, and the city is taking the right steps to integrate new residents and help them be in position to have a positive effect on the city's economic growth.
But some things, like providing a path to citizenship, are beyond the city's power. That's what resolutions to Congress are for.
Aaron Kase is a writer and reporter who lives in Roxborough.