WASHINGTON – With about 1.3 million immigrants coming into the United States each year, it is not easy for some people to cope with the changes that occur in their communities.
Several organizations around the country are lending a hand to communities with high numbers of immigrants, advocating for tolerance and interaction to end hate crimes.
The Center for American Progress hosted a presentation Tuesday about an initiative called “Stronger Together: Community Integration of Newcomers.”
The initiative seeks to “conquer fears and grow stronger by embracing differences.”
Several experts on immigration said it is important to bring members of the community together so that they can get to know each other and understand each other’s cultures.
“It’s in everybody’s interest to have community cohesion and build stronger communities,” David Lubell, executive director of Welcoming America, said.
Lubell said he has experienced the change that community integration brings. He compared the positive outcome the program brought to cities such as Shelbyville, Tenn., where Welcoming America was a success, to Columbia, Tenn., where a mosque was burned down in 2008. The two towns, both south of Nashville, are about 40 miles apart.
“It was a town that had a huge growth of Somalis and Latinos, mostly from Mexico, and there’s a lot of tension,” Lubell said of Shelbyville. He said his group used billboards and other methods to spread positive images of immigrants.
“As a result, you saw a lot of cohesion a lot of people finally coming together and understanding,” he said.
Other speakers shared similar experiences.
One example is a series of hate crimes in Patchogue, N.Y., in 2008, where a group seven high school students got together at least once a week to hunt down Hispanics. They beat them in what they called “Beaner Hopping.” These crimes led to the murder of Marcelo Lucero, a 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant.
Since then, the residents united to bring the underlying causes of these crimes to light and provide more security to residents.
The Lucero case is featured in a new documentary “Not in Our Town III: Light in the Darkness” produced by Patrice O’Neill, executive producer of the Working Group. The film is part of a series that began as a half-hour PBS special 15 years ago that continues its efforts to advocate dialogue and community action.
“What we’ve been exited about is the people who have formed groups not because there was an incident but because they saw a story, they saw a film and they said, ‘We want to prevent that from happening,’ and that’s where the real possibility lies as well,” O’Neill said.
These organizations are working to promote a more positive view of immigrants, emphasizing the values and contributions that they bring along.
“They are adding activity, stimulating the economy,” Mayor Laurent Gilbert of Lewiston, Maine, said. “We had vacant housing in the downtown, so these landlords who own those buildings with available housing certainly now they have filed that up. So, of course, you have to look at what would happen if they weren’t there? What would happen to these landlords?”
Although it’s not an easy process, the speakers described changes brought by integrating new immigrants into the community as necessary and said community members are encouraged by success stories.
“You need active community members who are willing to take this on and also willing to go though the discomfort. I think this is a really important point: This is not going to be comfortable, it’s going to be difficult,” O’Neill said.
Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.