By Mark Funkhouser
Over the past year, news coverage has cast a spotlight on the migrant crisis in big cities such as Chicago, Denver, New York and Washington, D.C. Seeing these metropolises struggle to provide shelter and other necessary services to migrants, many of whom are asylum seekers, has fanned political controversy and anti-immigrant sentiment.
The media paints a one-dimensional picture of immigrants in today’s America, creating the impression that immigration only puts a strain on host communities and city coffers. But away from the media spotlight, smaller cities and towns across the country are demonstrating that welcoming newcomers and devoting resources to them is not a zero-sum game.
Take Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which describes itself proudly as “America’s refugee capital.” The urban core of Lancaster County in the state’s Pennsylvania Dutch Country says it has resettled 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest of the United States. And it has leveraged the influx of new arrivals to its advantage.
Lancaster is a prime example of how new arrivals can contribute to the growth and vitality of a city. Home to just under 60,000 residents, Lancaster is one of more than 20 Certified Welcoming Cities: a “formal designation for local governments that have created policies and programs reflecting their values and commitment to immigrant inclusion.”
Lancaster’s mayor, Danene Sorace, told us that her community has been rooted in a tradition of welcoming since the 1600s, when William Penn founded what is now Pennsylvania. The city and county build on a long history of diversity, encompassing Black Americans newly freed from slavery after the Civil War, Jews and Anabaptists, including the large Amish community the region is known for. Forty percent of Lancaster is Spanish-speaking and 13 percent come from outside of the U.S., contributing to a vibrant and inclusive community.
Sorace spoke to the importance of community and government partnerships, as well as school district readiness, in effectively supporting the resettlement of new arrivals and empowering them to contribute to the local economy, noting that the entrepreneurial activity coming from new residents pays dividends to the community at large.
For example, the “Taste the World” downtown tours, spotlighting local restaurants to visitors, have gained in popularity over the past 12 years, selling over 15,000 tickets. Addressing potential tensions, including worries on the political right regarding racial replacement, Mayor Sorace described how Lancaster has worked to allay concerns by celebrating older traditions as well as those of newer residents.
While Lancaster is not immune to political polarization, the mayor pointed to the city’s neighborhood engagement and community-building efforts, including those resulting from her own recognition that the city was woefully behind in its language access support. That served as the impetus for pursuing the Welcoming City certification, eventually strengthening the absorption of non-native English speakers into the local schools.
The mayor also spoke about small businesses such as the Lancaster Stroopie Company, a purveyor of traditional sweet treats that provides employment opportunities for refugees. Two nonprofits, Church World Service (CWS) and Hello Neighbor, help connect businesses with immigrants seeking employment, connecting newcomers to jobs and employers to talent and effectively helping address critical labor shortages.
Integrating newcomers has paid off for Lancaster. The local Chamber of Commerce reports that refugees and other immigrants contribute $1.3 billion to the GDP of Lancaster County.
Much the same story is playing out in Sedalia, Missouri. “We are a country of immigrants,” says Mayor Andrew Dawson. “To me, that’s what makes America beautiful — providing opportunities for those who lack them in their home countries, and here they make the most of it.”
Located in central Missouri and with a population of around 21,000, Sedalia has become a haven for many Slavic immigrants since the early 2000s, and it experienced an influx of Ukrainian refugees in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion. The local landscape seems to resonate with these newcomers, reminding them of their home country.
Sedalia makes the most of it too, both culturally and economically. There is a yearly Ukrainian festival and several Slavic churches that bring new life into the community. Given the city’s reliance on the sales tax to fund governmental operations, the new residents’ purchasing power and increased commercial activity generates substantial revenue for the city.
Notably, Sedalia has seen no population loss in recent decades, making it an outlier among towns of its size and suggesting that immigration can be leveraged effectively by localities grappling with decline.
What are specific strategies and steps these municipalities have implemented to effectively integrate refugees into their community? The keys to success include rigorous planning and a dedicated network of resources, including external organizations such as CWS and Hello Neighbor that help immigrants in Lancaster. Elected officials and external agencies work together to coordinate policy efforts and support systems to help asylum seekers and other immigrants get settled and navigate language barriers, legal hurdles and pathways to employment.
Our shared identity as a nation of immigrants builds on the ideal of a country that has welcomed people in pursuit of a better life. While that notion omits recurring bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, the fact remains that our history has always been intertwined with newly minted Americans.