A new era needs a new approach

The Observer editorial board

Immigrants, including these becoming citizens in December, are transforming Charlotte.
Immigrants, including these becoming citizens in December, are transforming Charlotte. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte, for centuries a Southern town of black and white, has grown overnight into a global city of many hues.

The figures are startling, even for long-time Charlotte residents who have witnessed the change: In just 20 years, from 1990 to 2010, the percentage of Charlotte’s population that is foreign-born quintupled from about 3 percent to about 15 percent. Close to 114,000 immigrants, legal and not, call the city home. That’s about one in seven residents, a higher proportion than in Philadelphia, Milwaukee or Detroit.

Such an influx brings growing pains, and poses all sorts of public policy questions. Those questions are magnified by the likelihood that the trend won’t stop soon. Charlotte’s quilt will only continue to grow in diversity in coming years.

With these realities in mind, a 29-member task force spent the past year talking with different sectors in Charlotte and researching how other cities have helped immigrants integrate into their communities.

Their charge was not to fix America’s broken immigration system. That’s a job for Congress – one it has failed to complete with either party in charge. Rather, the task force was created to recommend ways of ensuring that Charlotte is strengthened, not weakened, by its growing immigrant population. That’s more than a moral challenge. It’s an economic imperative in the 21st century.

Newcomers to this country face all kinds of barriers to success – language, different cultural norms, a bewildering array of governments and regulations – while trying to do basic things like educate their children and secure health care. But they are also risk-takers and as a group are entrepreneurial. It is in Charlotte’s and the region’s best interests to help them contribute to the economy and society. As task force vice chair Emily Zimmern told the Observer editorial board Monday, we need to create “a cohesive diverse” community.

The task force presented 27 recommendations to the City Council Monday night. Many were baby steps, or were too vague, or would cost an unknown amount of money.

Several would be significant catalysts in boosting investment by both legal and undocumented immigrants. One would create a voluntary photo ID that might help them open bank accounts, start businesses, use the library and be identified by law enforcement. Others would help immigrant entrepreneurs with workshops and other advice. Another involves clamping down on notaries bilking immigrants for legal services, which is not uncommon.

The recommendations are only a beginning. But together they heighten awareness and give voice to a vital ambition – that this city be deliberate about maximizing immigrants’ contributions. The City Council and city staff should make sure many become a reality.