Christine Sauve, senior program coordinator at Welcoming Michigan in Kalamazoo. BTL Photo Drew Saunders

Welcoming Michigan Builds Immigrant-Friendly Communities

BY DREW SAUNDERS

Members of immigrant communities often have trouble settling into life in a new country. There's a new economy to navigate, new laws, and culture shock. There is usually a new language to learn and there is often an element of opposition from local residents - especially in this environment. But help does exist from non-profit organizations such as Welcoming Michigan, a legal and social advocacy project sponsored by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

"What's different about the welcoming approach is that we don't just say to immigrants 'This is how you can better succeed [and] integrate.' We look at the whole community and say to all the community members, how can you help your immigrant friends and neighbors integrate into the community [and] feel included," said Christine Sauve, senior program coordinator at Welcoming Michigan.

Founded in 2012, the organization facilitates communication between immigrant communities, local governments and long term residents. Welcoming Michigan hopes to create a mutually beneficial relationship by encouraging meaningful cultural conversation and inclusion between various socioeconomic communities.

The organization is proud to partner with 15 Michigan localities that have declared themselves "Welcoming Communities," including the cities of Detroit, Sterling Heights, Hamtramck, Clinton Township, West Bloomfield Township, East Lansing, Lansing, Meridian Township, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Royal Oak and Pleasant Ridge. Also, Kalamazoo and Macomb County.

Sauve notes that every community is different, though.

"For example, someone living in a neighborhood where you have a large number of people from your same country, or from a similar culture, can feel very different than if you are the only person who was born in a foreign country in a rural community for example. It can feel different, especially for people of color," she said. "They may always be perceived as not belonging, even if they are born here...Each community has a sense of its own identity, values and what it means to be [from there]. I would say every new person has to navigate that space and find their place in the community. So each time a new community starts getting involved in this work, they have to look and see what are their priorities and what makes sense."

Since the election of President Trump, hate crimes against minority communities and immigrants have increased significantly, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. This kind of discrimination and violence is emboldened by the Trump administration's decision to suspend immigration into the U.S. from six predominantly Muslim countries. By way of a revised executive order, which went into effect on March 16, no more than 50,000 refugees will be allowed into the country in 2017 from Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Libya.

Citizens will be subjected to a 90-day ban on travel to the U.S., according to the order. Existing visas approved before March 16 will not be revoked and the order does not explicitly apply to current lawful permanent residents and green card holders. The State Department reports that visas revoked because of the original travel order have been fully restored. However, it no longer places a blanket ban on Syrian refugees trying to enter the U.S. Instead, refugees, including those from Syria, will be subjected to a 120-day suspension of the refugee program.

Clarification: Two Federal Judges Ruled Against Trump's Lastest Travel Ban

Judge Derrick Watson of Federal District Court in Hawaii, issued a temporary restraining order on March 15 on the Trump administration's revised executive order which suspends the U.S. refugee program, temporarily bars the issuance of new visas to citizens of six Muslim-majority countries and slashes refugee admissions to the United States this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000. Watson said he intends to set an expedited hearing to determine whether it should be extended.

A second federal judge in Maryland - U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang - issued a preliminary injunction March 16 blocking enforcement of the 90-day ban against travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Hawaii's ruling would not be directly affected by a decision siding with the federal government in the Maryland case, legal experts said. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit set a hearing for May 8 to consider the administration's appeal. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the Trump administration will seek "clarification" on the Hawaii ruling before heading to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"All of this creates a climate where people are fearful. It makes people pull back a little bit and [have] a little more trepidation about participating in community activities and creating community life," said Sauve.

Welcoming Michigan does not perform legal services, but refers immigrants to low or no cost attorneys, including its parent organization in some cases. The MIRC also provides referrals for low or no cost legal representation to low income residents when necessary.

The MIRC has over a hundred attorneys on its "pro bono panel," according to Managing Attorney Susan Reed. The MIRC also has five attorneys in-house for high-impact priority cases, where the entire staff can be allocated if necessary.

"We are partnering with the ACLU of Michigan in recruiting and training dozens of new attorneys to respond to new crises for families relating to the executive orders targeting refugees and immigrants," said Reed via email. "... We prioritize cases that relate to access to public benefits and programs, employment, and the legal status of unaccompanied minors and survivors of domestic violence. We also have a special focus on U.S. citizenship."

In 2012, Welcoming Michigan became the 13th state/local affiliate of Welcoming America, a national, grassroots-driven collaborative to create a welcoming atmosphere community by community. The initial project started in Tennessee in 2009. It evolved out of an effort to smooth over relations between the existing neighborhoods and a growing Somali community in Nashville. Two Michiganders noticed what was happening in the South and wanted to implement this project locally. They are former Democratic State Reps. Steve Tobocman and Rashida Tlaib - the first ever Muslim member of the Michigan State Legislature. Both became members of the founding board for Welcoming Michigan.

Tobocman now runs Global Detroit, a metro Detroit advocacy group focused on creating jobs and economic growth in Southeast Michigan by working with immigrants, foreign trade and investment.

"We've seen more and more Midwestern communities - many of which are not major immigration areas - recognize that immigrants have so much to contribute and almost are the perfect fit for the kind of mainstream economic and policy goals that they have in their communities," said Tobocman.

Both Sauve and Tobocman agree that Michigan's attitude towards welcoming immigrants is as much an economic matter as a compassionate one, as the 640,000 or so Michigan residents who were born abroad have become a major factor in the state economy. According to a report released by the Michigan Office for New Americans last summer, 30,686 Michiganders born outside of the U.S. are self-employed, employ 152,780 people statewide and generated over $600 million in 2014. Tlaib has criticized the (Republican) Snyder-created office for not doing enough for immigrants.

Tlaib said that what makes welcoming initiatives different is that "it focuses on building relationships between immigrant communities and existing communities, rather than just on immigration policy."

Rather than putting laws through state legislatures or Congress, the welcoming approach is almost a human resources approach, as described by Sauve. The organization is committed to encouraging human beings to talk to each other at a grassroots level in an effort to build relationships.

Sports days are used to strengthen bonds between existing community members, for example. Immigrants and native-born Michiganders are paired together on the same teams because as Sauve put it, "when you're playing soccer, language isn't a barrier."

Simple explanations of American customs can be used - like why everything turns green on St. Patrick's Day or what Thanksgiving is about. And Sauve said that getting native-born Americans to explain their customs is a way to get them to also see it from the perspective of the immigrants in their communities too. Community clean up days - which might have just included churches in the past - can be expanded to include mosques, synagogues and temples from every religion within a community. Other community building activities, include mural paintings, subtitled film screenings, pot luck dinners and cooking classes. "Exercises like those also helps immigrants practice conversational English," said Suave. Anyone can come to Welcoming Michigan events. New events are advertised on the Welcoming Michigan Facebook page.

Welcoming Michigan is located at 3030 South 9th Street, Suite 1B, Kalamazoo. For more information, visit http://www.welcomingmichigan.org/ or call 269-492-7196.
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