Migration Pulse

Lessons on integration for local leadership

Local governments play a powerful role in integrating immigrants – and community organizations can help shape that agenda
February 12, 2013
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Bonnie Mah

Bonnie is a Policy and Communications Officer with Maytree, a private foundation based in Toronto, Canada. Cities of Migration is an international Maytree initiative that shares good ideas from cities that are working on innovative and practical ways to foster inclusion, diversity, and shared urban prosperity.

The lived experience of immigration is intensely local. Today, immigrants around the world are choosing to settle in urban areas. They live, work, study and raise their families in cities and their surrounding areas. Consequently,local governments play a powerful and critical role in immigrant integration. Community organizations are in a unique position to support and encourage local governments to fulfill that role.

Practice to Policy: Lessons for Local Leadership on Immigrant IntegrationAs the level of government closest to the people, local governments influence how immigrant residents are welcomed and integrated. Successful cities value diversity and these local governments encourage conditions in which immigrants and all residents thrive. As policy makers and service providers, they are responsible for areas that affect our daily lives – such as schools, emergency services, swimming pools and soccer fields, parks and streets. As democratic institutions, they draw on community input and create opportunities for all residents to participate in transparent and accountable decision-making.

Local governments also drive economic development to ensure that the city prospers. As major employers, they can institute good practices in hiring immigrants and managing a diverse workforce. As major procurers of goods and services, they can implement supplier diversity programs to ensure that immigrant-owned or immigrant-friendly businesses have a fair chance to compete for contracts. In these ways, local governments contribute to labour market integration and the success of diverse local businesses, and model good practices to the private and nonprofit sectors.

Successful cities take action across these areas of responsibility. The Cities of Migration project recently looked at how local governments in the U.K. and across Europe, North America and Australasia are taking the lead in welcoming immigrants. These cities are creating conditions that encourage inclusive social, economic and political participation. For example, Birmingham formed a strategic partnership to improve access to public maternal health care for refugees and vulnerable migrants. In London, the Living Wage Campaign seeks to ensure that all workers are paid a living wage. The campaign targets a class of workers in which immigrants, women and other minorities are over-represented. And in Blackburn with Darwen, the Meet Your Neighbours program brings girls from Muslim, Roman Catholic and secular schools together on a weekend trip. The girls get to know each other and can discover all that they have in common. 

In our most recent publication, Practice to Policy: Lessons for Local Leadership on Immigrant Integration, four international policy experts explore the work that local governments are doing to welcome and integrate immigrants, the conditions that influence their work, and trends in local level immigrant integration.

Audrey Singer (Washington) paints a picture of shifting metropolitan immigration patterns in North America and internationally. Roland Roth (Magdeburg and Stendal) explores the ways that cities are recognizing immigrants as a key to urban prosperity, while Myer Siemiatycki (Toronto) explores the ways that integration influences and is influenced by our public spaces. Finally, Jan Niessen (Brussels) looks at the ways that national policy interacts with local policy by examining global policy trends and commenting on gaps and convergences.

Certainly, national governments are important. They set the terms of immigration and citizenship, and influence how immigration will build the nation socially and economically. National policies provide the framework in which we work. Too often, though, the conversation around immigration gets stuck at the national level, with local leaders placing all of the responsibility – and possibility – on higher levels of government.

Local governments themselves might not always recognize how much influence they have in integrating immigrant residents, or the range and power of the tools at their disposal. Further, local governments must contend with multiple competing priorities.

Community organizations that work with immigrants and refugees are, therefore, in a critically important position to encourage, support and work with their local governments on immigrant integration.

To this end, Cities of Migration makes 10 recommendations for community organizations  to guide efforts to work with local governments to accelerate immigrant integration and social, economic and political participation. From connecting local governments with immigrant communities, to helping shape the integration agenda, to proposing program and policy solutions, community organizations can work with local governments to make immigrant integration a priority.