Immigration Is a Community Development Issue

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on April 13, 2015

The story of neighborhood populations changing with waves of migrants is a classic part of the history of American cities. We are, as most school children have heard, a nation of immigrants—some voluntary, some involuntary, some driven by persecution, some lured by opportunity. When I lived in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, as one of very few non Spanish speakers in my building, the mezuzzah (a Jewish scroll of Torah nailed by a door frame) under several layers of paint by my apartment's front door was a reminder of some of the history of who had lived in that building.

Whether newly arrived, or moving within the country, new arrivals to a city often cluster in one place. This too is sometimes voluntary, for social networks and familiarity, and sometimes horrifically involuntary, as with the violence that enforced the ghettos in northern cities during the great northern migration of African Americans fleeing Jim Crow.

In any case, the movement continues today, whether it's Latin American children fleeing gangs, U.S. cities welcoming refugees from international violence, or longer-established immigrant communities moving within the country, sometimes displaced from historic urban neighborhoods to suburbs, sometimes following jobs into the heartland.

Large immigrant populations are no longer the province of major coastal cities. Community development groups located anywhere are likely to have at least some immigrants within their constituencies, and in some cases might be seeing the demographics of their neighborhoods shifting significantly. This can bring new challenges: Adding services in other languages. Understanding how federal immigration policy and citizenship status affects members/constituents. Addressing a need for new kinds of financial services, and even new building plans. Developing new cultural competencies.

I spoke at a conference last year with a woman who headed an agency in a older upstate NY city that helped people attain homeownership. She spoke of challenges within her city's refugee community, in which social divisions from home countries affected people's ideas of who could and should become an owner of property even here. These are the kinds of things that can take a community-based organization by surprise if they have not thought of immigration as relevant to their work.

A few years ago we published a wonderful article based on research by James DeFilippis and Benjamin Faust on New York City CDCs and how they adapted—or didn't—to changing demographics in their neighborhoods.

Over the next couple of months, we are pleased to be following that up with a series of articles that will both give an introduction to the context of immigration patterns, immigration reform, and immigration organizing in the United States and then explore some of the ways in which the community development field is encountering and working with immigration explicitly, from citizenship loans to partnerships among different ethnic-focused organizations, to going multilingual. 

Keep an eye out for these articles (make sure you are signed up for Shelterforce Weekly to not miss any!) and if you have an example of a great immigration-related community development program or campaign we should cover, or if you have a question or challenge you'd like us to try to address in this series, let us know!

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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