Charlotte, start now integrating immigrants

During the past quarter century, Charlotte has emerged as one of the nation’s leading new immigrant destinations. In 1990, 3.6 percent of the city’s population was foreign born. Today the U.S. Census estimates that number has grown to 15 percent.

Charlotte’s immigrants are incredibly diverse with 52 percent coming from Latin America, 27 percent from Asia, 10 percent from Europe and 9 percent from Africa. Students from 158 countries attend Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. For a city and a region that didn’t experience the great waves of European immigration in the early 20th century and that has been long known for its black and white racial landscape, these seismic demographic shifts translate into a time of dramatic change. How does our community understand and adapt to the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly increasing multicultural population?

To begin to answer that question, Charlotte City Council formed the Charlotte Immigrant Integration Task Force. The 29-member group is made up of representatives from government agencies, immigrant organizations and immigrant and refugee-serving organizations. For the past year we have gathered community feedback through 16 listening sessions, a public forum and two surveys. We also heard from outside experts about demographic trends and best practices in other cities.

What did we learn from our 12 months of study?

▪ Like newcomers from across the U.S., our immigrant neighbors were attracted to Charlotte by its growing economy, the need for workers across the occupational spectrum, the promise of opportunity and overall quality of life.

▪ Immigrants are integral to our economy and live throughout the city. They are workers, customers, entrepreneurs, business owners, and taxpayers.

▪ Immigrant Charlotteans are eager to engage in the community. They seek language skills, job training and education for themselves and their children. They relish opportunities to celebrate and share their cultural traditions with others. They want help in removing barriers to their full participation. They want to create homes and plant roots for their families.

▪ Competition to attract talented immigrants has become intense. Peer cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Denver have created ambitious plans to encourage and sustain immigrant settlement and receptivity. Immigrants bring talent and global connections that create a competitive advantage.

On Monday, we presented to City Council 27 recommended strategies to maximize immigrants’ economic and civic contributions to Charlotte and increase connection and interaction between newcomers and longtime residents. The strategies promote entrepreneurship and economic development, citizenship, public safety, health, education and inclusion, and ensure and enhance access to services of local government.

The strategies will require further study to determine how best to implement them. A number of the recommendations build on current programs and require no additional funding. Others will need long term investment but thinking and planning can begin in the near term without budgetary impact.

To ensure a thriving, 21st century, global city where all residents have the opportunity to contribute their full potential, it’s imperative that we start now.

Latorre is an attorney; Zimmern is president of the Levine Museum of the New South. They are chair and vice chair, respectively of the task force.