A Beacon for Newcomers

A Beacon for Newcomers Photo by iStock.com


Welcoming centers build on lessons from past to foster immigration

More than a century ago, immigrants flooded into southwestern Pennsylvania, drawn to jobs in its mills and mines and the hope of a new life better than the one they had known. And as their numbers swelled, an organic support network emerged in the ethnic fraternal societies, lodges and churches they created to help fellow ex-patriots navigate the unfamiliar and often-harsh conditions they found in industrial Pittsburgh.

The flow of immigrants slowed to a trickle decades ago. But the idea of creating a place where they can find help settling into their new communities has been revived in recent strategies for growing the region’s foreign-born population, now one of the smallest in all of metropolitan America.

When Mayor William Peduto in June announced his “Welcoming Pittsburgh” plan for easing the transition for newcomers to the city, it included creating a series of “welcoming hubs” in select CitiParks recreation centers and senior centers to offer immigrants and others a variety of services, referrals and opportunities to meet and mingle with one another and their neighbors.

Downtown, the Vibrant Pittsburgh Welcome Center was opened as a referring agency six years ago to help newcomers connect with services ranging from language to employment as part of the nonprofit’s efforts to promote a more diverse region. And the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood has emerged as the hub of resettlement services for refugees.

Such strategies are gaining momentum across the United States as an increasing number of cities and counties come to recognize immigrants as critical to economic growth as baby boomers age and local populations contract.

Cities compete for newcomers

Every city is operating under that challenge,” says Rachel Peric, deputy director of Welcoming America, a nonprofit that specializes in helping cities and counties become more popular destinations for immigrants and others. “We’ve definitely seen an explosion of interest in immigrants across the country. To be ahead, you have to create an environment that’s welcoming.”

Allegheny County and now the City of Pittsburgh have adopted strategic “welcoming” plans to attract newcomers, particularly immigrants, and help them settle into their new communities so they will stay and spread the word of their satisfaction with the region as a place to live.

The significance of the city and county taking such steps isn’t lost on Vibrant Pittsburgh Director Melanie Harrington, who has researched and visited cities that are popular immigrant destinations, such as Minneapolis, where the percentage of the population born outside of the United States is more than twice that of Pittsburgh. “What we’ve found in those communities is that strategies with a focus on diversity are often led by local political champions.”

The public initiatives in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County take aim at turning around one of the country’s least diverse metro populations.

Only 3.8 percent of the population in the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area is foreign born, the lowest among Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Not surprisingly, the southwestern Pennsylvania workforce is one of the least diverse in the nation.

In the City of Pittsburgh, where one of the mayor’s goals is to increase the population by 20,000 over the next 10 years, 7.4 percent or residents are foreign-born. Only five of the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark cities have a lower percentage of residents born outside of the United States.

That wasn’t always the case. Foreign-born residents accounted for more than 1 in 4 people living in the City of Pittsburgh during the decades when the steel and mining industries grew to become the region’s dominant economic force.

Large numbers of ethnic organizations, such as the Croatian National Union and National Slovak Society, took root amid the surge of newcomers to help them adjust to life in southwestern Pennsylvania. The services they offered varied, ranging from financial products, such as insurance and annuities, to English language instruction and help securing jobs. All served as a meeting ground for people of common language, culture and heritage. Some immigrants also found help in local settlement houses, such as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in the Hill District.

Hubs and centers

Today, multi-cultural welcoming centers are found in the strategies of several cities to grow and diversify their populations, including Cleveland, Nashville, Philadelphia and Indianapolis.

One challenge is accommodating diverse needs that reflect the wide cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds of immigrants ranging from corporate recruits hired to management positions to refugees escaping strife, persecution and poverty in the native countries.

The role of the Vibrant Pittsburgh Welcome Center is largely that of working with newcomers, fielding their questions and requests for assistance and linking them to community resources. About half of those who seek advice are immigrants and their issues cover the spectrum of daily life, such as help connecting with children’s schools and understanding the local health care system and government. The most common requests include language instruction and legal advice related to immigration status.

In the City of Pittsburgh, more than half of newcomers born outside of the United States report experiencing problems with public transportation, finding jobs and connecting with others, according to a survey commissioned by the city. A significant percentage also reports having trouble understanding and accessing local government.

Some 54 percent of foreign-born residents plan on remaining in the city. The 46 percent who plan to leave or aren’t sure they’ll stay rank jobs and family as deciding issues.

In addition to the survey, the mayor’s office studied best practices around the country, held community forums, and created an advisory counsel to inform the city’s welcoming strategy. One item on the immigrant community’s wish list was a central resource center. A network of welcoming hubs idea was the city’s answer.

“What we still hear from the community is that they would love to see one immigrant, multicultural center,” says Betty Cruz, the mayor’s manager of special initiatives. “That may prove to be something that might happen down the road. Where we see the opportunity is in having city parks, bricks and mortar, partners, and building on what’s happening and what we have to make it more culturally engaging, rather than immediately build something new.”

CitiParks recreation centers and neighborhood senior centers are planned as places where newcomers can gather, get referrals and find programming that draws from the resources of community partners, such as the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The Greenfield neighborhood’s senior center, for example, has already become the place where local Chinese elders meet to play mahjong. Among the pilot hubs expected to open this year is the Citiparks recreation center in Brookline, which was selected for its proximity to growing Latino and Bhutanese communities.

Such a decentralized approach may prove beneficial to reaching pockets of newcomers scattered throughout a city, says Peric. “You can’t expect that after working a long day people are going to take five buses to get there.” Just as important, having hubs throughout the city is seen as another opportunity to draw long-term residents together with their foreign-born neighbors.

As their welcoming strategies mature, more and more cities are emphasizing nurturing the relationship between the foreign-born and native populations to overcome prejudice, fear and opposition. “You can have policies that are welcoming,” says Peric, “but if the community isn’t inviting immigrants to become their neighbors, they aren’t going to want to stay.”