I moved to Aurora, a small town on the northeast side of Denver, in 1964 when I was nine years old. Over a half century, I’ve watched my hometown evolve from a small military town into the most ethnically diverse city in Colorado.
It’s a place like no other. About 20 percent of our nearly 400,000 residents were born outside the United States, and they hail from more than 140 different nations. You can see the cultural richness on Havana Street, a special business district featuring Ethiopian coffee, Korean BBQ, Indian curry, Middle Eastern spices and Mexican mole. But this diversity is also a sign of our immigrants’ economic and civic power. They are making important contributions to our vibrant community and helping us earn an international reputation.
Aurora’s leadership has long celebrated diversity, but we are ramping up innovative and inclusive programs like never before. As a mayor who is also a Republican, I’m making immigrant integration a priority, charting a new course for my political party and breaking its anti-immigrant stigma. Because in Aurora, the one thing that all these immigrants have in common: they are welcome here.
That’s a powerful statement, given how unwelcome so many immigrants in the United States have felt in recent years. Last month, a federal court upheld a White House order to make 400,000 immigrants, who settled here legally after fleeing conflicts or natural disasters, leave the country. That’s terrifying for Aurora’s nearly 3,000 Salvadorans who were granted such permission after devastating earthquakes in 2001.
The federal government is also flouting a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that allowed 1.2 million eligible immigrants, who came here as children, to receive work permits as part of the DACA program. Until Congress gives them a pathway to citizenship, they will continue to live with chronic anxiety about their future.
In contrast, Aurora strives to empower immigrants and help them feel like important members of our community. It’s why New American Economy’s 2020 Cities Index named us as one of 10 cities to have significantly improved their support for immigrants this year. We earned high marks in the categories like government leadership and economic empowerment.
And over the next decade, we’ve pledged to expand these efforts: promoting entrepreneurship, home ownership, jobs skills and English learning opportunities. This kind of outreach not only increases belonging and civic pride among our foreign-born residents, but it boosts everyone’s quality of life. Research shows that Americans are better educated and earn more money in cities that successfully integrate immigrants.
That’s why I encourage all cities to embark on this journey alongside us. Here are some of the actions we took that other mayors can follow:
First, open an Office of International and Immigrant Affairs. We did in 2015 to signal our support for immigrants. But this has also solidified our reputation as an international city that welcomes global partnerships. Three years ago, El Salvador chose Aurora over Denver as the location for its consulate, and we’re hoping that South Korea will soon do the same.
Second, create an entrepreneurship hub. Immigrants account for one out of five entrepreneurs in the United States; in 2017, they employed 8 million Americans. After learning that immigrants needed help jump-starting their businesses, we realized that all aspiring entrepreneurs could benefit from municipal support in sorting out basic regulations and procedures. Our online portal offers information on training opportunities, legal steps and how to apply for government financing or microloans. Over the next few years, we plan to open a Small Business Center for Newcomers.
Third: Partner with nonprofits to offer more English and citizenship classes, and host an annual citizenship ceremony. It’s a joyous event that honors immigrants’ contributions to our country and allows them to participate fully as American voters. Citizenship is also linked to more economic security. The Urban Institute found that after naturalizing, immigrants earned an average of $3,200 more each year, paid $2 billion more in taxes, and increased their home-ownership rate by 6.3 percentage points.
Finally, foster unity by increasing communication. Last year we introduced a language access plan to share information in 160 languages. Having that infrastructure in place has proved critical for our public health agencies when officials needed to share important updates about COVID-19. We also launched the Natural Helpers program, training 150 immigrant and refugee leaders from 25 countries to welcome new arrivals, direct them to resources and provide a listening ear.
During my long career as a public servant, I’ve seen firsthand how smart, thoughtful policies can change people’s lives. That’s why I want Aurora to be a model for the rest of the country. We still need immigration reform on a federal level, but I strongly believe Republican and Democratic mayors alike can champion and celebrate immigrants’ contributions on a local level. We all win when we all have access to the American dream.
Mike Coffman is the mayor of Aurora and former U.S. Representative of Colorado’s 6th district