Leaders developing immigrant integration plan


The Refugee Education Center offers programs like Project Faulu, an after-school and summer opportunity that provides academic and youth development support to refugee children. Courtesy The Refugee Education Center

Local community leaders are working to develop a strategic plan to improve the experiences of immigrants and refugees in Kent County.

The city of Grand Rapids, Samaritas, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are collaborating to take part in the Gateways for Growth Challenge, a national competitive opportunity for communities to receive financial assistance and other support from New American Economy and Welcoming America to develop multisector plans for integrating immigrants.

Grand Rapids is one of 13 U.S. communities that received a $12,500 grant in January from Gateways for Growth to create a task force of more than 30 organizations and begin forming a multisector plan for integrating immigrants.

Matching funds already have been committed from Fifth Third Bank for $25,000, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation for $10,000 and more from other sources.

The goal is to keep immigrants — who make up a significant portion of the workforce — from feeling unwelcome and then moving away. Leaders would like immigrants to feel their differences are respected and embraced in the workplace, as well as be aware of available resources for starting businesses and generating employment.

“We see talent as a top-of-mind issue for employers in West Michigan, so this aligns with how we try to solve this problem,” said Omar Cuevas, vice president of sales and marketing for the Grand Rapids Chamber.

A 2016 study by Gateway for Growth found foreign-born residents of Kent County contributed $3.3 billion to the county’s GDP in 2016, according to U.S. Census data. More than 50,000 immigrants accounted for 8 percent of the Kent County population, with more than 13,300 of them undocumented and more than 7,600 refugees.

Immigrants make up 45 percent of workers in the local agriculture industry; 15 percent in manufacturing; 12 percent in transportation; 11 percent in hospitality and recreation; and 10 percent in construction.

The report estimates immigrants living in the county had helped create or preserve more than 2,300 local manufacturing jobs that would have otherwise vanished or moved elsewhere.

The 1,971 immigrant entrepreneurs represent 7.8 percent of the community and generated an estimated $47.6 million.

There was a big response from the community when this report was released, said Joel Lautenbach, Samaritas executive director of development and head of the local Gateways for Growth project. Whatever someone’s view on the issue, the topic of money usually speaks, he said, but the point is greater than that.

"Immigrants don't just represent labor,” Lautenbach said. “They represent culture, ideas, creativity. When we have that diverse community, it just makes things better for everybody.”

Getting started with the strategic plan, the local Gateways for Growth team launched an anonymous survey to gauge the experiences of immigrants in Kent County, led by the Calvin College Center for Social Research. This will inform the team of where there’s a need for assistance, resources, additional collaboration or policy changes.

“Instead of us taking a buckshot approach and seeing what might or might not work, we'd rather be more zeroed in and focused, based on the results that this survey is going to be able to provide,” Cuevas said.

Once the group is able to identify the priority areas for improvement, Lautenbach said they will ask the community to consider how those actions should be carried out, establishing an official unique welcome plan that business, local government, and nonprofits can endorse and partner on over the next three to five years.

The plan will be posted on the Gateways for Growth website, along with other communities’ unique plans. 

“So, it's not just a bunch of people sitting around a table deciding things for a lot of other people,” Lautenbach said.

Cuevas said he already took the survey, which he hopes others can use to share their experiences in Grand Rapids. Cuevas was born in Mexico and grew up in Southern California. Though he is a U.S. citizen, he said even his children experience issues that show the environment is not what it could be.

“I didn't feel like a minority until I came to Grand Rapids,” Cuevas said. “I feel like Kent County still has some steps to take to create a welcoming environment.”

He said the goal of the survey is to gauge the experience from the overall community of “new Americans,” without gathering data on specific communities or whether respondents are legal residents or undocumented.

With the level of economic growth in West Michigan, Cuevas said the consortium wants to ensure everyone can take part.

“We want to make sure that our county is a place where everyone feels like they can thrive,” he said.

Anyone who identifies as an immigrant is welcome to take the survey, he said. Even though someone may be a second- or third-generation American, they may still have strong ties with the culture of their family’s country, and they likely deal with some of the same issues as their parents.

Businesses are encouraged to share the survey with employees as anonymous to inform the business community.

“They should have a vested interest in learning from this sector of demographics,” Cuevas said.

The survey is truly anonymous, tracked by ZIP code, a Calvin College Center for Social Research staff member noted.

Each member of the task force is sending the survey to its clients, working with each other to ensure the most people are aware of the project. Those interested in taking the survey can do so online or reach out to task force members.

The survey can be found at bitly.com/g4gsurvey-gfg.

The task force includes the four collaborating organizations, as well as: the city of Grand Rapids’ Office of Diversity and Inclusion, The Right Place, the city of Wyoming and the Wyoming Public Safety Department, Justice for Our Neighbors, Michigan Immigrant Rights Coalition, Kent County Health Department, Kent ISD, Literacy Center of West Michigan, Kaufman Institute at Grand Valley State University, Treetops Collective, Refugee Education Center, Bethany Christian Services, African Collaborative Network, African Resource Center, WGVU, Michigan Office of New Americans, Grand Rapids Community College, Welcoming Michigan, Fifth Third Bank, Grand Rapids Community Foundation, Kent County, Spectrum Health, Cascade Engineering, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and Kentwood Public Schools.

Online surveys are available in English and Spanish.

Paper surveys are available in Bosnian, Burmese, English, Nepali, Spanish, Swahili and Vietnamese.

The survey will be open through May 29, though it may be extended if there are not adequate respondents.

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