A funny thing happened a few years ago when I was sitting down to write the “Note from the Editor” for a special issue of the National Civic Review on “Diversity, Social Capital, and Immigrant Integration.” A colleague e-mailed me a January 26, 2009, article in Newsweek about Lewiston, Maine, a winner of the All-America City Award in 2007. The article is entitled, “The Refugees That Saved Lewiston.”
Participants of Stateville, NC's Mi Familia GED preparation program
The author, Jesse Ellison, begins by describing how Lewiston, once a “bustling mill town,” had been shrinking since the 1970s. Jobs had vanished, the population was aging, and the downtown area was falling into disrepair. “That was before a family of Somali refugees discovered Lewiston in 2001 and began spreading the word to immigrant friends and relatives that housing was cheap and it looked like a good place to build new lives and raise children in peace.
“Since then the place has been transformed. Per capita income has soared, and crime rates have dropped.” There’s a great quote from Chip Morrison, president of the local chamber of commerce. “No one could have dreamed this,” he says. “Not even me, and I’m an optimist.”
From a cursory reading of the Newsweek article, you might even think that every fading New England mill town should go out and recruit some East African refugees, but of course, it’s not that easy. Lewiston won the All-America City Award in part because of its innovative New Mainers Partnership, a collaborative effort of the cities of Lewiston and Portland, Catholic Charities, and the State of Maine.
In the beginning Lewiston was ill-prepared to deal with this new population, not having had an existing refugee resettlement agency, or for that matter a considerable immigrant population when the Somalis began to trickle in. But somehow, they managed to turn a potential liability into an asset.
We like to think of ourselves as a “nation of immigrants,” or at least John F. Kennedy did when he chose that phrase for the title of a book published posthumously in 1964. It might be more accurate to say, however, that we are a nation of immigrants and “receiving communities” in which succeeding waves of the former have been met with decidedly mixed emotions by the latter.
Participants in Statesvilles, NC's Mi Familia Nurses Clinic
Benjamin Franklin apparently complained about the growing population of Germans, who he thought had different values and even different complexions. This pattern of ambivalence has continued through subsequent migrations—the Irish, Asians, Italians, Eastern Europeans and Latin Americans.
The disorientation that many receiving communities began to experience in the early late 1990s and 2000s was a difference in magnitude, about one half a million a year, as opposed to about a mere 200,000 in 1960. Also, until the 1990s, there were effectively only six “gateway” states for recent immigrants—California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois.
But now small towns and suburbs which had never experienced challenges and benefits associated with large-scale immigration were beginning to come to terms with the new realities—multiple languages spoken in their schools, interpreters needed at county hospitals and courts, religious practices that required accommodations in the workplace, to name a few.
“We are only as strong as our willingness to work together,” noted Statesville, North Carolina, Mayor Costi Kutteh when he revisited the city’s vision statement a few years ago. Residents and local government recommitted themselves to addressing a widening divide between the south side of the city and the “other side,” which was home to many of the community’s rapidly growing population of Spanish speakers. One strategy was the development of Mi Familia Institute to help the city’s Spanish speaking newcomers. Its program of financial planning and social services worked to strengthen family and community ties.
The National Civic League's All-America City Awards
In the 2000s, the community impacts of immigration would become a bigger focus of the National Civic League’s work. Diversity and immigration programs are often featured in community presentations during the annual All-America City awards program. Recent examples would be Lewiston, Maine; Aurora, Colorado; Statesville, North Carolina and Fort Wayne, Indiana and Scott City, Kansas. Through our Community Success program we were part of a statewide immigrant integration program in Colorado.
When the economy took a nose dive in 2008, the immigration issue went from begin a “hot button” political issue to being a back burner issue, although it seems to have cropped up quite a bit in the Republican primary debates. For the most part, however, the poor economy meant the jobs magnet pulling immigrants in from across the world was less powerful.
But here at the league, we were never concerned with the debate over federal immigration policy. Our concern was always: how communities are responding to the challenges and opportunities of being one of these new gateways—from Lewiston, Maine, to Statesville, North Carolina.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.