MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) —More than 600 immigration advocates, non-profit leaders and local officials are gathering in Miami to shift the immigration discussion from amnesty and temporary visas to what can be done to help existing immigrant groups better integrate into American life.
The meeting comes just as the prospect for congressional immigration reform this year is all but dead. Yet inaction on Capitol Hill might provide a window of opportunity for those focused on helping immigrants participate more fully in their communities beyond learning the English necessary to pass their citizenship test, said conference participant Demetrios Papademetriou, head of the Washington, D.C.- based Migration Policy Institute.
“Ultimately, the prize is not getting people to succeed at getting a green card, but to succeed as members of the American communities,” he said.
Monday’s meetings brought together a diverse group. Refugee Alain Nahimana, a former Burundi government official who now lives in Portland, Maine, described helping fellow African doctors and lawyers move from the state’s low-wage sectors back to the professions for which they were trained.
Tom Negri, a former hotel executive and interim director of Nashville Tennessee’s Metro Human Relations Commission, described how his city has improved economically since 2009, when it rejected an effort to pass an English-only measure.
Since then, the city has instituted more immigrant-friendly measures, such as a seven-month intensive civic and business course for immigrant leaders who are selected by their peers. Negri said the hope is that these leaders will not only spread the word among their peers, but may gain the skills to one day run for office themselves. . These changes have come as the city has simultaneously attracted new businesses and investment.
Representing High Point, N.C., was Alvena “Al” Heggins, who brings together native communities of color, low-income whites and new Latino and Vietnamese immigrants in her town of roughly 100,000. High Point is among two dozen municipalities and counties that have signed on to become immigrant “Welcoming Cities.” Atlanta, Nashville and Oakley, Calif., are also part of this new program to create a more immigrant-friendly environment.
Heggins, who was recently honored by the White House, said part of her work is also about bringing to light the impact immigrants may have on other groups. For example, some African Americans have been pushed out of low-income housing as landlords seek to attract what they view as more upwardly mobile immigrant communities, she said.
“Have things improved for everyone? Or are we creating a new population of migrants, poor blacks and whites?” she questioned. Heggins said creating safe and productive places to talk about these, issues is also part of what it means to be a welcoming city.
Labor rights was also a common theme. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez told the crowd that helping immigrants learn about U.S. labor protections and workplace safety regulations is key to ensuring unscrupulous employers don’t put those trying to follow the rules at a competitive disadvantage.
The conference runs through Tuesday. The Florida Immigrant Coalition, part of the National Partnership for New Americans, is hosting the event, which is sponsored by the Knight Foundation.
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