While the federal government remains in a stalemate over immigration, the city of San Diego took the first steps on Friday to create a strategic plan to better welcome and support new arrivals locally.
In a series of brainstorming sessions, residents recommended that San Diego pursue ways to help immigrants grow job skills and businesses.
They suggested the city develop culturally competent policies from education to policing and expand support for immigrants who are able to become U.S. citizens. Several also wanted the city to form an office for immigrant affairs.
The mayor’s office, in partnership with the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and several nonprofits, won a grant last year to fund research to create a long-term plan.
Joel Day, who is in charge of the Welcoming San Diego initiative for the city, said that San Diego’s kickoff summit of about 300 people was the largest of any U.S. city that has joined the program, which is co-organized by the New American Economy and Welcoming America.
That is a testament to all of the people already doing work to support and integrate immigrants, Day said.
“The idea is for the city to get behind the people already doing great work,” Day said, “for the city to stand up with them with a guiding vision for the future.”
Immigrants make up about 24% of San Diego’s population, according to a new report released as research for the plan, and make up about 29% of working-age San Diegans.
That’s significant for San Diego’s economic development, said Paola Avila of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, because the population of native-born Americans is aging and businesses need the workforce supplied by the region’s immigrants.
“Our reliance on growing business and growing our economy is heavily on the shoulders of the immigrant population,” Avila said.
San Diego immigrants also are about 23% more likely than U.S.-born residents to be job-creating entrepreneurs, according to the report.
The city’s multi-sector approach shows that helping immigrants integrate doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, said Kate Brick of the New American Economy.
“It’s about being pragmatic and recognizing the value in having a robust and supported immigrant community,” Brick said.
Though the federal government controls who can immigrate and how, municipalities and states still can have an effect on immigration policy, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political science professor at UC Riverside who gave the keynote speech at the summit.
Ramakrishnan gave examples of other movements, like women’s suffrage and labor, that started by getting policies enacted at lower levels of government that eventually became national.
“Think of states as being able to expand on the types of protections available at the federal level,” Ramakrishnan said. “Think of the federal government not as a ceiling but as a floor.”
Some residents have resisted previous “welcoming” efforts in other cities around San Diego County.
Several cities faced a backlash in 2016 when they declared themselves “welcoming cities,” which is one of Welcoming America’s programs.
Imperial Beach ended up undoing the proclamation after residents voiced concerns about attracting more newcomers to the area. Other cities decided to keep the designation.
Creating a strategic plan for a city goes a step beyond the basic “welcoming” label to build programs and resources for immigrants.
Day said he hasn’t yet heard about pushback on San Diego’s project.
“I fully expect there to be folks who are unsure how this impacts them,” Day said. “The more safe, connected and cohesive we are as a city, the more everyone is going to succeed.”
He said the broad coalition taking part in the project should help mitigate concerns.
“We’re trying to make sure all voices are heard, even dissenting voices,” Day said.
Through brainstorming sessions that covered civic engagement, safe and connected communities, economic opportunity, education and inclusive access to resources, attendees answered questions about what’s going on now, where they want to see the city in five years and how to get there.
Those recommendations will become the framework for the strategic plan, which Day hopes will be ready to present to Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the City Council by the end of the summer.
Other cities that have gone through the process created offices for immigrant affairs or funded collaborations between the public and private sector to provide needed resources to new arrivals.
The city will partner with the San Diego Unified School District to host more events for community input at five high schools before compiling a final report. Those interested in giving feedback also can visit welcomingsd.org.