I recently visited Charlotte, North Carolina with a small group convened by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS). The purpose of the trip was to examine how Charlotte, a city with a growing immigrant population, is helping to integrate migrants into the workforce.
Charlotte’s immigrant population increased by nearly 875 percent between 1980 and 2005. Once a majority white city, with black residents making up 30 percent of the population, today the city lacks a single racial or ethnic majority. While in 1980 Charlotte’s Hispanic and Asian populations each made up less than 1 percent of the citywide population, today they account for 13.6 and 6.2 percent, respectively. Much of that demographic shift is the result of immigration.
While the immigrant and refugee population is growing, income inequality and challenges integrating immigrants into the community have been at the forefront. According to a 2015 report by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte sits, ranks second to last in economic mobility among large counties across the country.
Recent efforts by the city to better integrate immigrants into the community have been stymied by the state government. For example, in 2015, in response to a resolution passed by the Charlotte City Council, then-Governor Pat McCrory signed damaging legislation that effectively preempted Charlotte from becoming an ostensible “sanctuary city,” and prohibited North Carolina municipalities from accepting ID cards issued by foreign governments. Nonetheless, Charlotte has set out to provide a welcoming home for its immigrant residents, and to improve their economic outcomes as well.
In 2013, Charlotte established an Immigrant Integration Task Force, a collaborative effort of businesses, government, nonprofits, and faith-based and educational institutions. Over the course of two years, the task force conducted research, engaged the local community, reached out to other cities going through similar demographics shifts, and ultimately produced a report laying out a set of recommendations for effective immigrant integration. Those recommendations focused on a range of issues including promoting entrepreneurship, education, health, public safety, and inclusion.
During our visit, we had the opportunity to speak with members of the task force, and tour many of the institutions that played a role in developing the report.
For example, we visited Central Piedmont Community College, or CPCC, which has been a key partner in the city’s immigrant integration efforts. Central Piedmont has also been a leader in promoting apprenticeships, paid on-the-job training, in the United States. For more than two decades, through its nationally-recognized Apprenticeship 2000 program, the college has partnered with local companies—including German companies operating in the area—to develop apprenticeships for high school students.
We also toured the college’s Working in America program, one of several pathways CPCC offers to students for whom English is a second language. The program is focused on helping English language learners improve their language skills and boosting their career prospects. One woman I spoke with remarked on how the contextualized program had helped her learn English more quickly, and helped her become more comfortable seeking work at the end of the program.
Education levels and career goals varies among program participants. The woman I spoke with was a lawyer by training, but across CPCC’s ESL programs, 50 percent lack a high school diploma, while others struggle with basic literacy skills, even in their native language. Programs like this one that offer contextualized learning accelerate learning, and are a crucial first step on a career pathway.
While the work of integrating immigrants, and reducing economic inequality among the city’s residents remains unfinished, it was clear from our visit that Charlotte is working mightily toward becoming an inclusive, welcoming home for immigrants and their families.
Angela Hanks is Associate Director for Workforce Development Policy at the Center for American Progress. She was a participant in AICGS’ project “Employment, Education, and Training: Integrating Young Minorities into the Workforce” and attended the site visits in North and South Carolina, funded by the Arconic Foundation.