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Reception in Communities and Families

The Welcome Mat Is Out in Many Communities, But Will It Remain Out?

Although the media often focus on dramatic stories portraying heightened anti-immigrant sentiments, research presents a more nuanced picture. According to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in the summer of 2014, most Americans said the undocumented children and youth fleeing Central America are refugees and should not be deported immediately. The survey indicates that whereas attitudes towards immigrants are hardening, 69 % of those polled said the unaccompanied migrants should be treated as refugees and allowed to remain in the USA if the authorities determine that it is unsafe for them to return home. Only 39 % of those surveyed would allow the children to stay for good, though 59 % do not want them here long-term because it “will encourage others to ignore our laws and increase illegal immigration” (Grossman 2014).

These anti-immigrant sentiments notwithstanding, members of many receiving communities are stepping up to welcome the young migrants. Mayors of several large cities—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, St. Louis, and Atlanta, among others—signed letters embracing the unaccompanied children and teens arriving from across the southwest border (Welcoming America 2014). Some cities also offer ID-cards to residents regardless of immigration status, a move that will ease the transition for arriving children and their parents.

Community members in many localities volunteer their time and expertise to ensure appropriate reception of the Central American children and youth. In one example, volunteers in Dallas County, Texas, gathered to assist the federal government and child advocates in finding appropriate housing for the incoming youngsters. The Grand Prairie Independent School District in Dallas County organized a community meeting to discuss the adaptation of abandoned schools in the area to house the children with no families. Many of these proactive efforts are part of a growing grassroots movement led by Welcoming America, which promotes mutual respect and cooperation between immigrants and US-born Americans in order to create a hospitable environment more conducive to integration into their adopted hometowns.

Nevertheless, these signs of welcome need to be approached with cautious optimism. There is a need to identify ways to sustain high levels of hospitality when the novelty wears off and the mundane sets in. It is not enough to organize vigils in front of the White House or at the border, as many of those concerned with the well-being of the Central American children and youth have done. Integration is not a one-way street. It is not even a two-way street, but a highway with many intersections and smaller roads.

There is a need for the host communities to adjust to the growing diversity of US society. There is also a need to facilitate integration between and among diverse groups of immigrants, youths and adults alike. The efforts of Welcoming America and similar initiatives need to go beyond bridging the divides between US-born residents and newcomers. Ethnic communities are too often romanticized as the networks that will embrace newcomers by virtue of sharing the same language or having similar experiences. The diversity of immigrant communi- ties—even those that do have much in common—is frequently forgotten. Time and again, friction, animosities, and discrimination can arise within immigrant groups, especially when the groups include minorities.

Teachers and school administrators have reported incidents of Latino students discriminating against Mayan students from Guatemala and showing disdain for Afro-Latino from the Dominican Republic.[1] Efforts need to be mounted to bring about understanding and mutual respect among and between various immigrant groups. What is needed is a realistic assessment of the youngsters’ needs and an appropriate response by the local community, both the host and the immigrant communities that have come before the recent arrivals.

  • [1] Based on interviews with teachers and school administrators in Washington, DC, carried out aspart of a research project on undocumented children and youth (Summer 2012) and personal communication with Roland Roebuck, a community leader in the Afro-Latino community in metroDC (October 2014).
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