This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Mayor Michael Nutter says the future growth of Philadelphia depends on immigrants.
Looking at the data, he has good reason. Over the past few decades, Philadelphia has been hemorrhaging population, but the number and percentage of immigrants have steadily grown.
A 2006 census survey indicates that one in five city households now speaks a language other than English at home.
Between 2000 and 2005, there was a 9 percent increase in the city’s foreign-born residents, while the native-born White population declined by 16 percent and the Black population by 6 percent, according to a report by the Philadelphia Migration Project.
Among 20- to 30-year-olds, the numbers are more dramatic: a 17 percent increase in foreign-born, and a 22 percent decline in native-born residents.
“Philadelphia is a global city and we need to welcome people of all backgrounds and nationalities,” said Mayor Nutter in June, when he signed an executive order requiring all city agencies to develop language access plans.
He has developed a task force to devise ways for further integrating immigrants into the fabric of city life.
This fall, it will prepare recommendations addressing “what can the city proactively do to become immigrant- friendly,” said Stephanie Tipton, city assistant managing director, who is coordinating the effort with another assistant managing director, Anuj Gupta.
Nutter wants to increase the city’s population by 75,000 in the next five to eight years, Tipton said. “Many large cities whose population is holding steady or growing are doing that through immigration,” she added.
In addition to improving language access to city agencies, the task force – called the “International Philadelphia Workgroup,” is charged with figuring out ways to make Philadelphia an international destination and to fully integrate immigrants into the community through job creation and business development.
“Integration is not assimilation,” said Israel Colon, the city’s director of multicultural affairs. “It means having an appreciation of what they bring.”
In education, Colon said he hopes to see recommendations for “a curriculum that really appreciates the importance of diversity in our schools,” in addition to ideas for improvement in language access and data collection about immigrants and school performance.
He added that while some immigrant groups come to Philadelphia with a high level of education, others do not. “We have to figure out ways to reach out to those groups and engage them,” he said.
Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, one of the community agencies participating in the work group, said she sees the city’s initiative as “moving from a piecemeal approach to a more purposeful, holistic approach to addressing the issues of immigrants.”
With education, she said, such an approach would be mindful that “immigrant students exist in the context of the city. … Students are also family members, community members, and workers.”