Creating Alternatives: Cities and Migrant Inclusion in the Americas

˙ Voces

Migration is a local phenomenon. Although national governments are key players in crafting policy to address the hemisphere-wide migration crisis, mayors are the ones feeling and dealing with the pressure and, in many cases, developing inclusive solutions. Cities and local communities are the first line of response for assistance and integration of migrants. Subnational initiatives on migration are particularly critical now given that many national governments are characterized by gridlock and polarization, especially on politicized issues such as immigration.

Large metropolitan areas such as San José, Santiago, Bogotá, Santo Domingo, Los Angeles, Lima, Antofagasta, Medellín, Miami, as well as border towns like Cúcuta, Upala, Tijuana, Tecun Uman, among others, host more than three quarters of all migrants. These municipalities face shared challenges, including meeting housing, employment, health, and education needs in addition to addressing more complex issues such as national and diasporic identity.

Given that more than half of migrants plan to settle in their adopted cities, it is not surprising that many of the most innovative immigration policies originate at the local level. From addressing their legal status (as more than two thirds arrive in some form of irregular entry), to finding a job, adequate housing, and healthcare, to incorporating into a new society and culture, cities and towns face numerous day-to-day challenges.

Fortunately, many local governments and communities are beginning to view migration through a lens of social and economic inclusion rather than viewing migrants as a public burden. In large part, this stems from the recognition that the foreign labor force represents an opportunity for the destination city, as migrants increase consumption and help meet local labor market demands. In addition, entrepreneurship is typically higher among migrants, contributing to innovation and wealth generation. Moreover, the social capital that migrants create in their communities becomes a nurturing space for democratic engagement. Organized migrants make demands to the local government, but also offer their own human and economic resources to make the communities stronger.

As cities seek to address both the challenges and opportunities that arise with migration, it is important that they share best practices and learn from one another. From a policy perspective, the work of cities should concentrate in critical areas that intersect with migrant needs and opportunities, and mayors should look to one another for ideas. The examples below are drawn from the June Mayors Summit that the Inter-American Dialogue co-hosted with CAF-Development Bank of Latin America and the Office of the Mayor of Los Angeles.

The first policy area is economic opportunity. In addition to providing opportunities for decent work, cities are uniquely positioned to promote financial access to migrants, either by reaching out to microentrepreneurs, formalizing them, and providing credit, or by giving individuals access to open bank and savings accounts in order to access credit and improve money management skills. Financial access in local economies is a key factor that strengthens communities’ social and economic capital, particularly that of small businesses. For example, members of a consortium of federal credit unions in Washington, DC collaborate to enable financial inclusion to migrants, from owning bank accounts to accessing mortgages.

Second is social inclusion. Migrants’ incorporation into a host country starts in their new town. However, their social capital is limited, resources are scarce, and oftentimes the native population is uncertain of how much help migrants can be to their community. One response to these doubts is found in Denver, where local officials seek to highlight the value that migrants bring to their host communities. Cities can also help build the migrant community’s social capital by helping them form or join civil society organizations, be part of community dialogue on local public policy, and benefit from learning the host country’s civic values. The result is strong communities with social cohesion between migrants and local populations.

Third, access to services. As newly arrived migrants try to establish roots, municipalities face various challenges when it comes to the delivery of services. Housing is perhaps the most difficult issue for cities. Due to affordability and inclusion problems, homelessness and overcrowded housing are common. In response to this complex challenge, Bogotá’s housing program includes Alojamientos Temporales Humanitarios, providing immediate lodging and food to those migrants in the most vulnerable situations. Education and healthcare are other areas of need. Children of migrants enroll in schools without an understanding of local rules and procedures for school attendance and performance. The importance of access to healthcare has grown since the onset of Covid-19. At a minimum, local governments must work with national entities to carry out regular checks on social conditions in housing, health, and education.

Fourth is partnering with the private sector. There is no question that the migrant’s homeland has businesses with transnational operations in banking, trading, or other services. These businesses can partner with the host cities to enhance their competitive advantage by leveraging the free trade zone regimes, recruiting migrants to work in call centers or other activities linked to outsourcing operations. Additionally, transnational banks could partner with local communities to enhance financial access for migrants that come from countries where these banking institutions have operations.

Fifth, legal support. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to transgressions such as labor rights violations. Cities can create spaces for migrants to bring their complaints related to jobs that are not clearly protected or regulated, such as domestic work. When it comes to migrant protection, San Antonio offers free citizenship clinics that inform migrants of their rights and legal protections. In some cities the issue is economic empowerment, particularly for women. In Upala, Costa Rica, the Centro Municipal para Migrantes provides legal advice to migrants who seek to apply for refugee status as well asworks with a network of community grassroots organizations with the purpose of addressing common solutions to economic vulnerabilities of migrants.

In addition to the examples above, it is important to explore how local governments have effectively addressed questions such as: What are the best policies to increase migrant school attendance and performance? How has the foreign labor force contributed to productivity and innovation? In what way is the private sector and urban policy addressing affordable housing for these incoming populations? How can cities help migrants navigate through and accelerate the regularization process?

Although no single set of policies can address fully migrant incorporation and integration, it is important to share and learn from the approaches of local leaders and communities. Efforts at the municipal level are already yielding results that enhance opportunities and progress for the people of the Americas.



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