Cokie & Steven V. Roberts: A tale of two cities
This is a tale of two cities.
The crowds bristled with racially tinged hostility. “What kind of criminality will happen?” demanded a demonstrator. One woman wore a shirt bearing the legend, “If You Can’t Feed Them Don’t Breed Them.” Another carried a homemade sign blaring, “Send Them Back With Birth Control.”
Utica, an aging industrial center in upstate New York, takes exactly the opposite approach. It welcomes immigrants, especially refugees from political persecution in countries like Burma and Bosnia.
“The immigrants have been an economic engine for the city,” The New York Times reports, “starting small businesses, buying and renovating down-at-the-heels houses and injecting a sense of vitality to forlorn city streets.”
Both storylines reflect our history. Americans have always embraced immigrants and resented them at the same time. Signs urging “Send Them Back” are as familiar as the poem on the Statue of Liberty that reads, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Washington has totally failed to confront the immigration issue because nativist Republicans in the House have adopted the “send them back” mindset and blocked every effort at reform.
As a result, 11 million undocumented immigrants still lack legal status. Employers cannot find enough fruit pickers or software designers. Other countries are courting our best foreign-born grad students because we make it so hard for them to stay and work here.
But in the end, the optimism of Utica is stronger than the fear of Murrieta. Immigrants have always injected our national life with “a sense of vitality,” and while Washington abdicates, cities across the country are begging newcomers to move there.
A good example is St. Louis, which created a civic campaign called the Mosaic Project to attract new residents. The effort is based on a study by Jack Strauss, an economics professor at Saint Louis University, who wrote: “There is one clear and specific way to simultaneously redress the region’s population stagnation, output slump, tepid employment growth, housing weakness and deficit in entrepreneurship. Immigration.”
One part of the campaign: putting signs on the city’s buses and trains in 17 languages. “We’re talking about how (to) look and feel more welcoming,” the project’s director, Betsy Cohen, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Signs on the bus are a very tangible thing that help people understand we’re a globally welcoming community.”
A similar effort called Global Cleveland is using social media and online messages to reach potential recruits. “It’s really going to be a one-stop shop: Everything I’d want to know about what life here is like,” said Joy Roller, the group’s president.
Richard Herman, co-author of the book “Immigrant, Inc.,” emphasizes the benefits of job creation. “This demographic has demonstrated their over-performance in entrepreneurship, whether that’s a neighborhood bodega or a big tech company,” he told Cleveland.com. “Economics is driving the whole piece. We’re basically talking about welcoming immigrants to grow the economy.”
Philadelphia suffered decades of decline before initiating the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. “We had 60 years of losing population, and if hadn’t been for immigrants, it would have been 65,” says Amanda Bergson-Shilock, the outreach director. The key, she told the Post-Dispatch, is tapping into the “immigrant grapevine” and generating word-of-mouth advertising.
“If someone moves to Philadelphia and someone helps them build a life here, other people will hear about it,” she says.
We both know firsthand the value of new immigrants. Cokie grew up in New Orleans, a city founded by French traders in the 18th century that has always thrived on the energy and innovation of a widely diverse population.
Steve’s hometown of Bayonne, N.J. was once dominated by immigrants from Europe, including his own grandparents. Today, the stores on Broadway are run by Indians, not Jews. The old Catholic churches that once offered masses in Italian and Polish have been joined by the True Light Korean United Methodist Church and the Arabic Assembly of God.
But the spirit of Utica is not just about creating commerce; it’s about creating a culture. “I think the main point is to respect each other,” Ahmedin Mehmedovic, imam of a mosque converted from a Methodist church, told the Times. “If you respect me as a Muslim and as a good man, I’ll respect you too. In Utica, there is a big harmony between different religions and different congregations.”
Two towns. One stands for turmoil, the other for tolerance.
We’ll take tolerance.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.