Published in Economic Development

Kent County immigration welcome plan a ‘call to action,’ officials say

BY Friday, September 18, 2020 03:22pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Kent County municipal officials and business advocacy groups have released an area “welcome plan” meant to address concerns among the immigrant community, including restoring trust with law enforcement agencies and promoting equity in education and business opportunities.

The “Welcome Plan for Kent County” was a two-and-a-half year effort involving focus groups and surveys of hundreds in the area’s New American community. The report includes a series of recommendations and goals for employers and individuals to help address immigrants’ main priorities and concerns.

“This is a call to action — it’s not about being West Michigan nice,” Omar Cuevas, vice president of sales and marketing for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said during a media event on the plan’s release Friday.

Immigrants surveyed for the study said their top priorities include freedom to work in a desired profession; the freedom to maintain their culture, religion and traditions; and achieving a desired level of English.

In addition to New Americans’ cultural value, the plan also recognizes immigrants’ economic force in the region. According to the study, more than 55,000 Kent County immigrants paid $376 million in taxes in 2018 and contributed $1.1 billion in spending power. The top five countries of origin for immigrants in Kent County are Mexico, Guatemala, Vietnam, Bosnia and Canada.

The plan’s goals include increasing connectedness with immigrants to create a better sense of belonging, based on survey respondents’ concerns about a “deep sense of othering or alienation,” said Stacy Stout, director of equity and engagement for the city of Grand Rapids.

Another is empowering immigrants with more business resources, which has become increasingly urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan also addresses the need to ensure immigrants’ sense of safety with the goal to “enhance relationships and communication between New Americans and law enforcement to better serve and protect the community and keep officers safe,” according to the plan. It recommends increasing multi-language and cultural competency skills among law enforcement officers.

The immigrant community in Grand Rapids and the surrounding region remained concerned over their security and acceptance, particularly following reports that the Grand Rapids Police Department has worked closely with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, contributing to a sense of fear in the community.

“A great way to build trust is … making sure we have just laws and just application of those laws,” Stout said.

Meanwhile, immigration activists in Grand Rapids — particularly through Movimiento Cosecha — have for years backed state “licenses for all” legislation to ensure undocumented immigrants can obtain drivers licenses. This week, the group spearheaded a demonstration at the state Capitol in Lansing calling for lawmaker action on bills introduced last year.

While the Grand Rapids City Commission earlier this year unanimously passed a resolution supporting licenses for all, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken a position on the bills. While the inability to obtain a drivers license was among concerns shared during the plan’s development, Cuevas said the recommendations are specific to local and county level policies.

Andy Johnston, government affairs director for the Grand Rapids Chamber, said the group is backing the “Michigan Compact on Immigration” that includes federal policy changes.

“We need policies that are possible and prioritize keeping families together,” Johnston said, adding that most immigration policy is set at the federal level, where years of advocacy have produced little comprehensive immigration reform.

“We’re sick of waiting for it,” Johnston said of federal immigration reforms.

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