Doing Better: Immigrants make NC more vibrant, competitive

The heated national debate about admitting Syrian refugees into the United States, in the wake of the recent terror attacks in Paris, offers an opportunity to reflect on North Carolina’s evolving immigration climate.

Between 1990 and 2013, the state’s immigration population increased 551 percent. Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem have seen their immigration populations grow by as much as 1,000 percent. Recent census data show that North Carolina has an immigrant population of 750,000, including approximately 350,000 unauthorized immigrants.

Research shows that this immigration boom is a good thing for the state’s economy. A 2014 study by UNC-Chapel Hill found that immigrants contribute more than $27,000 per capita, per year to spending in the state. For every $1 spent on services for immigrants in 2010, $10 were contributed back into the economy.

But while our economy has benefited, North Carolina still struggles with how to best integrate and support our immigrant population. The “Social Capital Survey” by Robert Putnam at Harvard University found that interracial trust is substantially lower in ethnically diverse communities due to ethnic tensions associated with rapid change. Also, residents of ethnically diverse communities are less likely to trust people in their neighborhoods and are more likely to be personally isolated. The study specifically found that Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem ranked high in faith-based engagement, charitable giving and volunteering, but relatively low on social and inter-racial trust.

To cope with these challenges, four cities in North Carolina are members of the national Welcoming Cities and Counties initiative – including Raleigh, High Point, Greenville and Charlotte, Immigrant Integration Task Force was created through a city council resolution in 2013.

Each of these welcoming cities “commits to institutionalize strategies ensuring the ongoing inclusion and long-term economic and social integration of newcomers.” Tactics include collaborating with the immigrant community to find solutions to pressing problems and concerns; conducting language and cultural awareness within the police department and recruiting culturally diverse and bilingual officers; and creating connections with area service providers to contribute to the web of support services for recent immigrants.

Trust undermined

But while some cities in North Carolina are trying to foster trust and connection with the immigration community, the trend is to take a tougher stance through strengthened law enforcement strategies. This includes a growing willingness to participate in the 287(g) program, a federal-local immigration enforcement partnership in which local police are authorized to ask individuals for their immigration status and take appropriate action.

The 287(g) program is designed to identify and remove immigrants who commit serious crimes. Yet a study by the Migration Policy Institute found that more than 50 percent of detainees in four communities in North Carolina were held because of traffic violations. In 2012, the Department of Justice suspended the program in Alamance County because an investigation found that local deputies stopped Latino drivers 4 to 10 times more often than non-Latino drivers and were more likely to arrest them for minor traffic violations. A UNC-Chapel Hill study also showed that the 287(g) program significantly undermined trust between immigrant populations and law enforcement resulting in a reduction of reporting on crimes, violence or domestic abuse, and even accidents because of fear of deportation.

This past October, Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 318 (the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act”) that prohibits cities from passing community trust policies, known as sanctuary city ordinances, and accepting identification cards issued by foreign governments – a common national practice. Under the law, police will have the authority to take a person to jail – even for a minor offense – if they cannot verify his or her identification. In response to the bill passing, Capt. Jeff Wood of the Burlington Police Department said, “you’re going to have a whole lot more people that are arrested and booked into jail tying up valuable law enforcement resources.”

Public safety crucial

In addition to straining local law enforcement resources, there is also a risk that these measures could negatively impact our business climate. When a similar measure was passed in Arizona, for instance, Latino businesses began to leave the area, and national companies started refusing to do business in Arizona, citing its institutionalized racial profiling policies.

Here in North Carolina, public safety is a critical priority. But is it possible that we can actually increase our safety by building trusting relationships within the immigrant community – rather than driving a wedge in immigrant relations through heavy-handed law enforcement that ultimately erodes public trust?

North Carolina is more vibrant because of our immigrant community. Our challenge now is to foster integrated communities in which everyone, especially the most vulnerable, feels safe and welcome.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.