How not to handle N.C.’s immigrant boom

The number of immigrants in North Carolina has shot up by more than 550 percent since 1990.
The number of immigrants in North Carolina has shot up by more than 550 percent since 1990. MCT

The heated national debate about admitting Syrian refugees into the United States, in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris, offers an opportunity to reflect on North Carolina’s evolving immigration climate.

Between 1990 and 2013, the state’s immigration population increased 551 percent. Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem have seen their immigration populations grow by as much as 1,000 percent. Recent census data show that North Carolina has an immigrant population of 750,000, including approximately 350,000 unauthorized immigrants.

Research shows that this immigration boom is a good thing for the state’s economy. A 2014 study by UNC Chapel Hill found that immigrants contribute more than $27,000 per capita, per year to spending in the state.

Yet North Carolina still struggles with how to best integrate and support the immigrant population. The “Social Capital Survey” by Dr. Robert Putnam at Harvard University found that interracial trust is substantially lower in ethnically diverse communities due to ethnic tensions associated with rapid change. The study specifically found that Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem ranked high in faith-based engagement, charitable giving and volunteering but relatively low on social and inter-racial trust.

To cope with these challenges, four N.C. cities are members of the national Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative – including Charlotte, Raleigh, High Point and Greenville.

Each of these welcoming cities “commits to institutionalize strategies ensuring the ongoing inclusion and long-term economic and social integration of newcomers.” Tactics include collaborating with the immigrant community to find solutions to pressing problems and concerns; conducting language and cultural awareness within the police department and recruiting culturally diverse and bilingual officers; and creating connections with area service providers to contribute to the web of support services for recent immigrants.

Despite these efforts, Gov. Pat McCrory recently signed House Bill 318 that prohibits cities from passing community trust policies, known as sanctuary city ordinances, and accepting identification cards issued by foreign governments – a common national practice. Under the law, police will have the authority to take a person to jail – even for a minor offense – if they cannot verify his or her identification.

In addition to straining local law enforcement resources, there is also a risk that these measures could negatively affect the business climate. When a similar measure was passed in Arizona, for instance, Latino businesses began to leave the area, and national companies started refusing to do business in Arizona.

In North Carolina, public safety is a critical priority. But is it possible that we can actually increase safety by building trusting relationships within the immigrant community – rather than driving a wedge in immigrant relations through heavy-handed law enforcement that ultimately erodes public trust?

North Carolina is more vibrant because of our immigrant community. Our challenge now is to foster integrated communities in which everyone, especially the most vulnerable, feels safe and welcome.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. Email: authors@bullcityforward