When a Hindu family in Concord attracted sizeable crowds for a week-long religious festival last October, neighbors complained about the loud chanting and parked cars on the street.
Police at the time said the gathering didn’t violate any city ordinances, and that the property owners had applied for and received a permit for the event.
That didn’t stop one neighbor from posting a prominent “Go Home” sign visible to arriving participants. Social media blew up with posts about the event.
Rather than crack down on such events in the future, Concord decided to get out of the business of regulating private functions altogether.
“What I thought was positive out of that was that the community, the police department, stood up for the immigrant family, saying they were within their rights,” said Liz Fitzgerald, director of community impact at the Greater Nashua United Way.
Fitzgerald is co-chair of the One Greater Nashua Coalition, which has partnered with three other cities in New Hampshire to launch the Immigrant Integration Initiative, now in its second year.
At a time when anti-immigration sentiment is running high, as evidenced by the success of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in Great Britain, New Hampshire is in the middle of a three-year project, costing nearly $1.4 million dollars, to welcome and integrate immigrants in the Granite State.
“The real point of this work is to ensure that New Hampshire is benefitting from the arrival of newcomers,” said Kelly LaFlamme, program director at the N.H. Endowment for Health, which is funding the program in partnership with the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.
Each non-profit has pledged $60,000 a year for three years to Nashua, Manchester, Concord and Laconia — the four cities that successfully applied for $11,000 planning grants back in 2013.
Their programs began in 2015, continue this year and will conclude in 2017, hopefully with a hand-off to permanent institutions in each community, such as civic groups, schools, chambers of commerce and libraries.
The project is modeled on similar efforts under way in Colorado, Ohio, Illinois, and Idaho. The grassroots movement, called Welcoming America, is represented in at least 60 communities nationwide, according to LaFlamme, including Nashville, Tenn.; Dayton, Ohio; Boise, Idaho; and Greensboro, N.C.
“Community by community, participants are working to create an inclusive culture and smooth the process of weaving immigrants into the social fabric of their new hometowns,” she wrote in a recent report on the project.
Rather than criticize the effort, a spokesman for FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says it speaks directly to the heart of the immigration challenge.
“It sort of indicates exactly what the issue is,” says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for FAIR, which promotes improved border security, an end to illegal immigration and new immigration levels “consistent with the national interest.”
“It’s easy to take immigrants,” he said. “What’s difficult is integrating and assimilating them into the mainstream. That’s why FAIR is calling for lower levels of immigration. It’s not an easy process. We’ve mythologized the great wave of immigration (in the 19th century) as if people got off the boat and were instantly Americans, speaking English and waving the flag. That was never true.”
In New Hampshire, leading economists are united in their belief that foreign immigration is an economic imperative, given the state’s low birth rate, aging population and decline in immigration from other states.
The state has seen its foreign-born population increase by 30 percent over the past decade, but it still only accounts for about 5.7 percent of the population and 7 percent of New Hampshire’s workforce.
According to a 2015 study by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, the state’s foreign-born residents, living mostly in Manchester and Nashua, fall into two categories: those with little education, and those with very high levels of education.
“This poses an interesting set of challenges for New Hampshire policymakers, including, on the one hand, how to best improve the educational prospects of those immigrants with little schooling (and their children), while at the same time trying to attract and retain more highly skilled and educated foreign-born workers.”
They also fall into two other categories: those here legally and those here illegally.
None of those distinctions matter to those involved in the Immigrant Integration Initiative, according to Fitzgerald.
“We recognize that immigrant status and immigration reform are something we don’t control locally, so we’re not focused on that,” she said. “There are advocates on both sides of that issue, but the reality for us is that our population of diverse clusters is growing, and the strength of the community will depend on our ability to adapt to and embrace that.”
Programs to achieve that objective vary from one city to another.
Nashua has created a three-pronged approach, with one team focused on diversifying civic leadership; another team helping immigrants with logistics; and a third group of volunteers working with youths in the city’s three middle schools.
Manchester has focused on community conversations; Concord has developed a micro-lending pool to help immigrant entrepreneurs; and Laconia is working to establish a welcome center for newcomers.
“We’re just in the beginning of this. It’s a long game,” says Fitzgerald. “We’ve been a diverse community forever, but not as visible as now, and with all the rhetoric, I know there are people out there who are afraid, but it comes down to being afraid of the unknown.
“When you start to meet each other and know each other and become neighbors, you become people to each other, and that’s what breaks down the fear,” she said. “That’s where we’re at, and that’s our goal.”