A new Charlotte City Council effort to boost growth by creating more immigrant-friendly policies has quickly become caught up in the debate over immigration reform.
On one side are immigrant advocates demanding Charlotte take a stand on national policies, including ceasing to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on deportations. On the other side are citizens concerned the city is about to roll out the red carpet for people who may be in the country illegally.
Leaders of the city’s Immigration Integration Task Force are resisting the entanglement. They say their mission is to study what other cities already are doing to encourage immigrants to settle down, start businesses and be more involved in civic life.
The end result of the yearlong study will be a series of action items recommended to the City Council, said Emily Zimmern, co-chair of the task force.
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“This is not just about dialogue and discussion. This could result in changing local regulations or laws ... that help immigrants. It’s about the economic and social benefits of being immigrant friendly,” Zimmern said.
“Addressing the broader issue of immigration reform is not what we’re asked to address.”
Public suggestions on what Charlotte should do to help immigrants will be gathered through a series of public listening sessions. The first will be at 5 p.m. April 27, at Midwood International & Cultural Center, in partnership with International House.
The council voted in November to create the task force, which includes people from the immigration community, economists, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s and police departments, and representatives of local industry.
The intent is to transform the way Charlotte deals with immigrants. This includes creating policies that encourage immigrants to move here, a step some cities are trying as a way to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods and create new businesses. Other cities have not yet proven whether those policies work.
“Encouraging immigration makes sense for our new economy, which is a global economy,” said Astrid Chirinos, of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce in Charlotte.
“We have not gotten to the depressed stage of cities like Detroit, which are in a crisis. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to fall behind. ... Immigrants create new models, new innovations and new energy.”
Chirinos said she believes national immigration reform is “the elephant in the room” that the task force can’t ignore. “They’ll have to take a stand, like many other cities have, by looking at it as economic development, not just as a social issue.”
One group that’s already suspicious of the task force’s agenda is NC Listen.
“There is no problem embracing legal immigrants in this country, so what are they trying to fix?” said Ron Woodard of NC Listen. “What this committee is trying to do is lump legal with illegal immigrants together as if they were one and the same. This is already a political group, if you peel the onion layers back. ...The public doesn’t want illegal immigration embraced.”
What could change
Manolo Betancur of Colombia and his wife, Zhenia Martinez of Mexico, are examples of Charlotte’s immigrant business community. The two run Las Delicias Bakery on Central Avenue, and he operates a second business that picks up people from bars and chauffeurs them and their car home for a fee.
Betancur says he works up to 80 hours a week, which he says is typical of immigrants.
“Americans don’t realize they are getting the best of people from foreign countries, because hard-working people are the ones who come to make a better life. The lazy people don’t want to leave their countries,” Betancur said.
The city could help immigrants by hiring more government employees who are bilingual. “It’s not an expense,” he said. “It’s an investment.”
Cities that already are trying more immigrant-friendly policies include Detroit, Louisville, Ky.,, St. Louis and Nashville, Tenn.
At the Charlotte task force’s meeting on Thursday, they’ll hear about Nashville.
In 2012, Nashville had the fastest-growing immigrant population of any American city, with 12 percent of its population born outside the United States. Nearly half were recent immigrants who entered the country since 2000.
Nashville has had a variation of Charlotte’s immigration task force (the Nashville Human Relations Commission) since 2009, the same year the city’s voters defeated an English-only amendment for conducting city business.
Tom Negri, interim head of Nashville’s commission, says his city’s efforts include building a community center to help immigrants with everything from English classes to a health clinic. A park is now under consideration adjacent to the center.
“Ten years ago, Charlotte was ahead of us on such issues, but the engine somehow stalled,” Negri said.
“I think what happened here is that we started a community conversation over the English-only issue, and it turned out to be a discussion of immigrants. It brought everyone to the table and it became clear where we had to go.”
UNC Chapel Hill released a report this week noting immigrants had a $19 billion economic impact on North Carolina, based on 2010 data. Charlotte, with a 14 percent foreign-born population, ranked fourth among communities in the state with the largest percentage of immigrants.
Stefan LaTorre, who co-chairs the task force with Zimmern, said he believes the creation of the task force is a commentary on how progressive Charlotte has become on immigration. He also believes the task force will make a statement on national immigration reform, but only after doing the necessary homework. Task force meetings are open to the public, he added.
“I think we have moved beyond the discussion of who should not be here,” LaTorre said. “We have been charged with trying to make things better for all immigrants, documented and undocumented.
“The understanding on the committee is that these people are here and let’s do something to help them.”