Harnessing the Power of Immigration

In recent years, waves of migrants in numbers surpassing those seen during World War II have overwhelmed the capabilities of governments around the world. The political, economic, and social strains brought on by this influx have contributed to the rise of nationalist candidates, who stoke the flames of fear and hatred for the “other.” However, Amy Pope, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience and author of the report Building More Resilient Communities: Responding to Irregular Migration Flows, argues that, when governments prepare for unexpected migration as they would for other challenges like hurricanes and tornadoes, communities can not only accommodate these unexpected new neighbors, but thrive as well.

In her paper, Pope examines successful policies implemented by local governments, businesses, and community members alike to mitigate the initial shock at receiving migrants in areas which have not had the opportunity to diversify before. Pope finds three areas in which the negative effects of migration can be alleviated—creating parity between migrants and community members in programs at the local level, facilitating better communication between national and local governments and other stakeholders in supporting migrant populations, and ensuring that funding is available in advance of migration crises.

On June 28, Pope, who served as deputy homeland security adviser in the Obama administration, discussed her report with Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America. Christine Wormuth, director of the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience, moderated the discussion. In their discussion, they explored pragmatic policies which could be implemented locally, nationally, and internationally, to ensure better lives for those affected directly by crises and those communities that unexpectedly needed to accommodate these populations.

Pope explained how the failure to prepare for and react to irregular migration, as some believe was the case with many European governments in the face of the ongoing migrant crisis, undermines the long-term stability of countries. When countries are not prepared to face such challenges, by ensuring that community concerns are accounted for and by facilitating coordination amongst stakeholders, communities are not able to build and maintain resilience in the face of this crisis, ultimately supporting the “popular perception that migration is a ‘problem,’” said Pope.

While the need for these processes is widely understood when dealing with natural disasters, Pope reasoned that governments must adapt for irregular migrants flows as well.

She explained that while supporting immigration—especially when anti-immigrant rhetoric was featured so prominently on important platforms like the campaigns of Marine Le Pen in France and Donald J. Trump in the United States—may be a tough political sell, the economic benefit of immigration to cities facing economic decline has been remarkable. However, she admitted, not all countries have the luxury of deciding when and how to accommodate a limited number of migrants. In this case, it is integral to the successful resettlement of migrants that the national government establishes formal channels with which to communicate with native-born citizens about their willingness to resettle migrants and to identify with the private sector which communities would benefit economically from resettlements.

In order to make her policy recommendations a reality in a challenging political atmosphere, Pope discussed the need to empower mayors and governors who are willing to employ creative solutions to migrant crises and have more political capacity to do so. However, she persisted that “the best response is one where you can get multiple governments lined up to find points of commonality.”

Peric provided an on-the-ground point of view when it comes to implementing these policies as local community-builders and discussed the successes and failures of Welcoming America. She began by describing a community building mission in Nashville and Shelbyville, Tennessee, a region in which there historically was little demographic change. She explained that organizations “were doing a lot of work to support immigrants, but were not doing much work to explain to the broader community why this change was happening.” In response, they built an effort to reach out and create opportunities for native-born citizens to meet with migrants, including the broader community in resettlement efforts. The lesson that Welcoming America learned in Tennessee was “that to become a community that is really welcoming for newcomers, you have to be a community that is welcoming for the people who have lived there all their lives… there has to be this intentional effort to reach out and really build a bridge.”

Alongside this, Nashville by 2012 was leading the nation in job growth, with leaders throughout the city saying that immigration was “instrumental” to the booming economic climate. However, Wormuth pointed out that this economic benefit is never quite intentional, and that the United States could benefit from a sort of matchmaking process in which the key needs of cities and communities are considered.

Pope admitted that during her time as a homeland security advisor the administration failed to take advantage of the president’s economic advisors who could point out cities and regions that would benefit from migration. “We need to stop looking at immigration as a problem just for immigration experts, we need to pull together these different streams so we’re thinking about it as a way to build economic revitalization,” she said.

Peric agreed that the United States has done a bad job with strategically planning for immigration flows and deciding which communities migrants may fit in best. She cited the example of Dayton, Ohio, a city that was facing massive population drain. Community and business leaders worked together to form the “Welcome Dayton” plan, which identified areas that would make Dayton more welcoming to others—from ensuring that elementary schools offered opportunities to learn English to making it easier for immigrants to buy homes and open businesses. As a result, Dayton, which had until 2011 seen a drastic population decline, managed to turn this situation around by making itself more appealing and welcoming to others.

In this vein, Pope said that private businesses may have the best chance of conveying to the current US administration why immigration is integral to the economy.

Kelly Russo is a communications intern at the Atlantic Council. 

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Image: (from left) Christine Wormuth, director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience, moderated a discussion with Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America, and Amy Pope, a nonresident senior fellow at the Resilience Center. (Atlantic Council)