Why are some cities so much better at integrating immigrants than others?

A protest in New York City. Image: Getty.

As anti-immigrant sentiment erupts in Western democracies from Germany to the United States, some cities are still finding ways to make immigrants feel at home.

I conducted hundreds of interviews with immigrants in New York, Paris and Barcelona intermittently for over a decade to understand how each city integrates – or excludes – its migrants.

My new book, A Place to Call Home explains why some cities and their residents do better at incorporating foreign-born newcomers in the local economy, culture and politics.

A feeling of belonging

On the surface, immigration in these three cities looks quite different.

Over one-third of all New Yorkers were born abroad, the majority of them in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In Paris, where 20 per cent of the population is foreign-born, most immigrants and their children come from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and other former French colonies in North Africa.

Much of Barcelona’s immigrant population, around 17.8 per cent of its total population, is Latin American or Moroccan.

Despite their diverse origins, the immigrants I spoke with consistently cited the same elements as being critical to their sense of urban belonging, helping them to feel “at home” while working, socialising and raising a family in the city.

New York and Barcelona, it turns out, foster this sense of belonging more than Paris does.

Nearly 70 per cent of the first-generation Latino immigrants I interviewed in New York City feel that they are part of the community. Just under half of first-generation Moroccans in Barcelona felt that way. But only 19 per cent of North Africans in Paris feel like part of the community.

Lots of jobs

In part, interviewees told me, that’s because New York and Barcelona both have ample jobs open to immigrants in both the formal and informal sectors.

Immigrants are vital to New York City’s economy. According to the New York state comptroller’s office, immigrants account for 43 per cent of the city’s workforce and nearly one-third of its economic output.

Immigrants have a strong presence in the service sector and construction. Additionally, according to a 2016 comptroller’s report, “Many industries, such as technology, finance and information, draw on a worldwide talent pool of immigrants to maintain their competitiveness.”

Barcelona, too, has depended on immigrant labour to grow its economy. Until Europe’s 2007 economic crisis, when high unemployment slowed immigration and compelled many foreign-born workers to return to their countries of origin, immigrants were an important part of the labour force.

Employers in both cities are also generally accepting of undocumented status. Some 560,000 undocumented people live in New York City, according to a March 2018 report by the city, which is 6.3 per cent of the city’s total population. Undocumented immigrants in New York have a high labor-force participation rate – 77 per cent for people ages 16 and above.


Events and services for immigrants

Both Barcelona and New York also hold regular cultural events celebrating immigrants.

Brooklyn’s West Indian Day Parade, organised by Caribbean immigrant populations and funded partly by corporate donations, draws millions of revelers each year.

In Manhattan, the act of closing down some main avenues to host the Saint Patrick’s, Puerto Rican, Dominican or Mexican Day parades is an important sign of solidarity with foreign-born residents and their descendants.

Many local nonprofit organisations and government agencies in New York and Barcelona exist to serve immigrants’ specific needs.

In Barcelona, the Service Center for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees is a government service that provides free resources for immigrants on how to obtain legal status and eventually obtain Spanish nationality. It also provides educational, employment and housing services in seven different languages.

In New York, many different immigration organisations advocate for immigrant rights and provide numerous resources and programs throughout the city. They also aim to elect immigrants into political office and community leadership positions to improve immigrants’ public representation.

Let immigrants be

Immigrants also told me that people in New York and Barcelona just let foreign-born residents be themselves, allowing them to maintain their own identity while creating a new home.

From the point of view of immigrants, then, it’s the ratio between being specifically catered to and treated the same as anyone else that determines how welcome they feel.

The key to inclusion, in other words, seems to be to help immigrant integration without forcing it.

No city is perfect at this. In New York, Barcelona and Paris alike, I found that many immigrants were stuck in low-skilled jobs, working in restaurant kitchens, taxis and construction sites – no matter what they did back home.

All the immigrants I spoke with struggle to find affordable, quality housing in these expensive metropolises. Anti-immigrant politicians publicly decry them as “threats” to the nation.

And immigrants of color in these predominantly white countries reported being racially profiled by both police and residents, though that appears to happen much less often in New York City.

What Paris gets wrong

In my interviews, the first- and second-generation immigrants who most often reported that they struggled to feel at home were the ones who lived in Paris and its metropolitan region.

France has long embraced the idea of itself as a homogeneous secular republic. This notion endured even as the country colonised Muslim North African countries like Algeria and Tunisia in the 19th and early 20th centuries and recruited workers from those countries.

The secular ideal makes it difficult for French society to address the ways that immigrants may in fact be different than the native-born French.

France’s national census cannot ask about racial or ethnic identity, for example. So policies designed to help minorities – such as affirmative action – are not only almost impossible there but also frowned upon as discriminatory.

Racial discrimination and racist comments are not uncommon in Paris. But France’s steadfast belief that it is a “colour-blind” society means there is little interest in talking about racism.

Muslim immigrants living in Paris also told me that they felt Parisians expected them to assimilate – to abandon their home culture and become entirely and immediately “French”.

Support for ethnic and race-based organizations of the sort that proliferate in Barcelona and New York, is also seen as anti-French. As a result, immigrants in Paris typically practice their religion and cultural traditions in private. That isolates them from their neighbours and prevents most native-born French from learning about these newcomers.

The ConversationThis external pressure to conform quickly to the national culture makes immigrants feel less at home – and, based on my research, less likely to actually assimilate over time.

Ernesto Castañeda, Assistant Professor of Sociology, American University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.