County welcomes immigrants

Influx of Afghans will be first large group to receive local support from new program.
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Kent County organizations are rallying community members and resources to ensure hundreds of Afghan refugees feel welcome in the community and help them adjust to life in West Michigan.

The Kent County Gateways for Growth Welcome Plan Steering Committee is seeking support from individuals, businesses, organizations and funders to assist in the group’s commitment of making Kent County a welcoming and inclusive place for all. Opportunities for involvement will address essential needs of immigrants such as housing, financial assistance, mental health care and friendship for refugees following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Omar Cuevas, part of the steering committee and vice president of marketing and sales at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said this is the first time the welcome plan’s committee and task force have come together to implement a plan for a specific group since its launch last September. The group is looking to make these “new Americans” feel welcome and have a purpose and place in their new community that is provided to them in an equitable way.

“We now have a nucleus of what this welcome plan is, and it includes the private and public sector, right? We understand that the resources are limited when it comes to groups like this, like these new Afghan neighbors that we’re going to have, and it’s up to our community to figure out how it is that we can come together to create not only a welcoming community, but create a sense of belonging for individuals that may have zero connections here locally, may not know anyone, may have language barriers, literacy issues in regard to language, but also navigating new systems,” said Cuevas. “On top of dealing with some potential mental health issues of no longer being in their home country and their communities with people who look like them, speak like them, even food culture.

“So now they’re placed in this community. Well, what is it that we can do to make sure that from the start they feel that we have a community that’s committed to embracing them and helping them create their own space here where they can maintain their identity with the support of a number of organizations that have come together for this work?”

The committee’s efforts to help Afghan refugees are a subset of a larger initiative called Welcome Plan Kent County, which highlights the importance of new Americans and encourages them to stay in Kent County by providing various support services and fostering a welcoming community approach.

The Gateways for Growth steering committee consists of members from the city of Grand Rapids, Samaritas, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Grand Rapids Chamber. A task force of more than 35 private and public organizations in West Michigan also has offered time and resources to carry out the mission.

Cuevas said Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas, for example, receive immigrants locally and are able to address their immediate needs. From there, they leverage their resources within the welcome plan group and outline what other resources are needed.

“We know that long-term, there’s going to be other resources that we’ll need to tap into, but for right now, there’s some essential needs on housing and mental health, clothing and food,” Cuevas said.

The efforts of the group are seen as an investment into the community with the goal of not only welcoming the individuals but retaining them here.

“We have immigrants that come here with advanced degrees, with skillsets, and when we look at West Michigan, this is from a chamber of commerce perspective, one of our biggest challenges right now is talent. Not only attracting but retaining talent. So, this is a talent pool that we can invest in right now and welcome into our community and have them see that this is a place for them, as well.”

In 2018, Samaritas, the city, Grand Rapids Chamber, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber and The Right Place partnered with the New American Economy Research Fund to compile an economic report of the impact of immigrants specific to Kent County. The report showed immigrants as essential to financial and workforce contributions, and key drivers of population growth. 

According to the report, immigrants contributed $3.3 billion to Kent County’s GDP in 2016 and held $943.7 million in spending power. They contributed significantly to federal, state and local taxes — $219.4 million federal, $101.5 million state — and were responsible for 24.1% of population growth between 2011 and 2016. Though making up 8% of the county’s population, immigrants represented 9.9% of the working-age population and 9.9% of those employed in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In manufacturing, immigrants comprise 15.1% of the workforce and make up 11.1% of workers in hospitality and recreation.

A similar report in 2018 by New American Economy found immigrants’ spending power in Kent County had increased to $1.1 billion and of the 55,595 immigrants that called Kent County home, 2,031 identified as entrepreneurs.

“You know, I think there’s a fallacy, a misnomer that immigrants take away, and we don’t want to look at it as a zero gain here because immigrants are part of what creates a great community,” Cuevas said. “They help enrich the culture of what Kent County is today of multi-colors, multi-cultures and experiences that help the vibrancy of what Grand Rapids is, what Kent County looks like today. 

“… So, yes, the face of West Michigan continues to change. There’s the demographic shifts, but let’s look at it from an economic perspective. … The immigrants in our community … not only impact the GDP, but even when you’re looking at buying power. We want not only for immigrants to stay here and work here, live here, play here, but also invest. We have immigrants that are job creators, that are innovators. So how can we lean on this diverse experience that is Kent County with immigrants we have from all over the world?”

The plan’s initial call to action was for each organization involved to take ownership and hold themselves accountable for their contributions to the plan. Given the vast resources provided by services and programs offered through the network of welcome plan supporters, however, the group was able to come together to provide the best possible action plan to assist immigrants when and how they need it most.

“GRCC, for example, was doing great work in providing training for builders’ licenses in Spanish. So that’s great, but guess what? If you wanted to take the exam at the state level, you could only take it in English. So, what did we do? We leaned on (the chamber’s) governmental affairs team of registered lobbyists and they went to work and a couple months ago were able to get the state to say yes, all right, this makes sense. Let’s go ahead and move forward with the exam (also) being in Spanish.”

Welcome Plan Kent County is part of the Gateways for Growth (G4G) national initiative to improve immigrant inclusion and integration across the country. G4G provides research support and technical assistance opportunities for public and private sector organizations to jointly apply for various levels of support.

The local effort continues to seek talent, time, resources and investments from businesses and individuals looking to get involved. Those interested can contact Cuevas at omar@grandrapids.org.

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