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Charlotte group seeks to mend ties with foreign-born residents

Rafael Prieto, editor of Charlotte’s Spanish language newspaper, felt a mix of relief and acceptance when the city last week decided to officially reach out to the city’s immigrant community.

For far too long Charlotte’s growing foreign-born population has felt like outcasts, said Prieto, editorial director of Qué Pasa Mi Gente and native of Colombia.

“I believe it’s a very important step for the entire immigrant community,” said Prieto, who came to the U.S. in 1979. “For a long time, the city hasn’t been as welcoming to immigrants.”

Prieto and others have praised the Charlotte City Council’s recent decision to set up a task force to promote ways to better integrate immigrants in civic groups, educational opportunities and public safety efforts.

While specifics remain unclear, the 25-member Immigrant Immigration Task Force also will be charged with expounding the benefits of a growing foreign-born population.

“We have folks who have come thousands of miles, left everything they knew behind,” said City Council member John Autry, who represents District 5 along Independence Boulevard and east Charlotte. “And these folks have come here because the governments they came from have failed them. We’re hoping to be a better society, a better community.”

But Charlotte’s initiative is troubling to critics who fear it could open the city’s gates to those in the country illegally.

NC Listen, a Cary-based nonprofit concerned about the effects of illegal immigration, said Charlotte is walking a dangerous line. Last week’s resolution does not distinguish immigrants who are here legally from those who are undocumented.

“One of the problems right off the bat is many cities and counties lump illegal immigrants and immigrants into the same category,” said Ron Woodard, NC Listen director. “I don’t expect the city or county to become ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but I don’t think the city or county should be inching toward a sanctuary city.”

The idea for a task force stemmed from a May meeting with the American Society/Council of the Americas, a group whose aim is to increase cultural diversity awareness and engagement.

Council member David Howard said he’d share Charlotte’s task force resolution at an AS/COA summit in New York on Tuesday.

The resolution calls for Charlotte’s mayor to appoint seven task force members and the City Council to choose the rest from a list that will include representatives from CPCC, the Southeast Asian Coalition, and Mecklenburg Ministries, among others.

Howard said interim Mayor Patsy Kinsey, who championed the task force, would likely choose her appointees before leaving office next week.

“We want to make sure we put a bow on this before we move on,” he said.

A growing population

More than 130,000 Mecklenburg County residents – roughly 14 percent – are foreign-born, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show. That’s up from about 23,000 in 1990.

One of the city’s highest concentration of immigrants lives south of Tyvola Road between Interstate 77 and South Boulevard. There, they make up 30 to 50 percent of the population.

About a third of the population is foreign born in some neighborhoods near Central Avenue and Autry’s District 5 area.

“You can start out in a Somali restaurant and end up in a Bosnian restaurant and then have dessert in a Mexican bakery,” Autry said.

Autry said the task force could help immigrants become more involved in local government and take advantage of what it offers.

For example, the city provides a façade improvement grant for merchants looking to upgrade their property.

Immigrants own 18 percent of the country’s small businesses, according to a city release.

Illegal immigration concerns

The task force also will be charged with reviewing the recommendations made by the Mayor’s Immigration Study Commission in 2007. The recommendations touched on a range of topics, from attracting bilingual professionals to increasing the county’s jail and immigration detention space.

Council members said it’s likely the group will research the effects illegal immigration has had on Charlotte as well.

Woodard, of NC Listen, said one result is clear: Illegal immigrants take jobs from U.S. citizens.

But immigrants have been good to Charlotte, said Prieto, the newspaper editor.

“You see the skyline of Charlotte right now, and you see all the recent construction. That has been done by immigrants,” Prieto said.

Prieto said he hopes the task force not only outlines immigrants’ rights but also their responsibilities.

They must learn basic English, get an education, be good citizens and participate in government, he said.

Armando Bellmas, spokesman for the Latin American Coalition, said immigrants, including illegal ones, help keep Charlotte running.

“If this is where they’re going to live, than we have to figure out what we can do to help them,” he said.

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