As President Donald Trump increases his effort to restructure and narrow the country's immigration laws, cities big and small are stepping forward with a message for the administration: Immigrants make our communities strong. We need them, and we are willing to protect their rights.
On Friday lawyers for the city of New York filed papers on behalf of more than 30 U.S. cities asking the federal court to maintain an injunction against the Trump administration's controversial limits on immigration and travel. The initial executive order, which saught to block immigration and travel from seven predominantly-Muslim countries, was later ruled unconstitutional by the courts this month.
But for cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles -- which are often seen as resettlement destinations for refugees, temporary workers and permanent residents -- a newly-restructured order banning immigration could still destabilize local economies and make it harder for small businesses to survive.
And just as concerning, said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, it would send a “horrible message” to the world: That the U.S. doesn’t intend to respect and uphold the values and contributions of neighboring communities.
“The president’s ban violates both our Constitution and the values we hold dear,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The initial ban, the claimants say, “stranded students, separated families, disrupted travel and commerce, spread fear among our residents and visitors, and projected a message of intolerance and distrust toward members of our communities.”
But it isn’t just large cities like New York and Minneapolis that have felt the impact of Trump’s restrictive view on immigration. It’s also small towns and cities in areas like upstate New York, where immigrants are often the glue that holds small, shrinking communities together.
Places like Utica, where declining property values gave way to a resilient immigrant community and people witnessed the changes that can come by opening international doors. Iranian students who could afford to pay the tuition fees of upstate New York’s prestigious schools moved in, fixed up and built a new community for foreign nationals. And best of all, as New York Times writer Jesse McKinley points out, they didn’t leave.
“My kid and every other kid here graduates from college and moves somewhere else. Refugees stay,” Hamilton College Professor Paul Hagstrom told the New York Times. Hagstrom has spearheaded research for Hamilton focused on the impact refugee immigration has on New York’s northern cities.
In Toledo, Ohio, you see a similar story. Toledo’s small but growing Arab community has been around since the 1800s, but its support network for newly resettled refugees from Arab-speaking countries is considered a model for building cohesiveness in cities forged by diverse backgrounds.
In Toledo, new Arab residents aren't alone as they struggle through the disorienting challenges of figuring out a brand-new home and language. A network of nonprofits work together to help resettle families and get breadwinners up and running as fast as possible. One organization offers language classes; another finds the basic amenities needed for a new home. Another volunteer fills in the gaps for getting a driver’s license, finding a new doctor or getting to a new job. Others provide companionship, potlucks and camaraderie.
In the process, Toledo’s Arab-American community has not only grown stronger, but it’s also forged bonds with other communities. Many of the nonprofit services that help refugees get on their feet are provided by Christian organizations with a mission to “aid the stranger” irrespective of religious affiliation. Along the way though, their assistance has helped to cement friendships between Arab Muslim and Christian refugees who now call Toledo their home.
And as one writer who grew up in the Muslim faith in Toledo and earned his diploma from a Jewish academy in the same city describes, those multicultural values are reflected in other neighboring faiths as well.
“The embrace that my parents felt from the Arabs when they arrived to America found its echo for me within the Jewish community, which welcomed me in as family, ensuring that I always had a kitchen in which to break matzah, and a sukkah in which to shake the lulav,” Zeba Kahn wrote in Common Ground News, a publication focused on Muslim-Western relations.
That isn’t to say the Trump administration’s scuttled immigration ban didn't have a discouraging effect on Arab resettlement programs. Small, predominantly-white towns like Rutland, Vermont, have discovered that emotions run high when it comes to treading into unknown territory. And a contentious presidential election that has immigration at the center of debate doesn’t help.
For Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, however, opening a resettlement program for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in need of work and a home has always made perfect sense. The son of Greek immigrants himself, Louras knows communities can be a welcoming place for newcomers with a shared value of community growth.
And many in Rutland agree. As the plan moved forward last year, residents stepped up to volunteer assistance. One who had lived overseas and speaks Arabic volunteered to teach Arabic-language classes to neighbors. Others put together plans to teach English to the city’s new residents. Still others offered transportation and manpower. Academic scholars familiar with issues faced in such an undertaking volunteered their time and expertise.
The first two families, approved by the federal government in September, were due to arrive in January. Community members who saw the program as a way to both help refugees and inject new life into their aging town were ecstatic when the first two families stepped off the plane – right before, that is, the Trump ban took effect.
Resettlement programs in small cities like Rutland depend on federal funding to survive – federal funding that not only bolsters immigrant programs, but also state programs that Trump has vowed not to fund if cities and states do not go along with his immigration reform policies.
"People who are fleeing for their lives [in Syria] now have no place to go. This community that was welcoming them with open arms now has no one to welcome and that is a tragedy for them and that's what is going to be devastating for the community,” Louras told local Rutland news affiliate WCAX.com. He admitted that the first two families “will probably be the last.”
Still, cities like Rutland haven’t really lost. Rutland's story, which made national news, has already become a narrative to counter the fears and distrust that has historically been part of this country's growth pains.
Let's be honest: America has a long and successful immigration history. Immigrants from Italy helped build the labor force in construction industries during and following World War II. Jewish refugees from Europe injected needed labor in New York's Lower East Side during the 20th century and helped fuel the growth of West Coast cities as well. Mexican farm workers nurtured the growth of the Northwest's vital fruit industries, changing attitudes and demographics in the process. Irish immigration during the 19th-century potato famine didn't just help to transform the workforce in blue-collar cities like Boston; its history and success became an election-winning legacy for the country's 35th president, John F. Kennedy.
New immigrant communities often face untold distrust and discrimination. But as many of the country's largest metropolises prove, cities that maintain open harbors to global communities win.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.