Phila. 2014: Celebrating immigrants

Anne O'Callaghan

is executive director of the Welcoming Center

for New Pennsylvanians

It's a few minutes before midnight on Dec. 31, 2014. A festive crowd at Penn's Landing, ready for fireworks, wildly applauds the popular outgoing mayor as he steps up to address the crowd:

"Fellow Philadelphians, as we gather to celebrate the dawn of a new year, I can't help reflecting on where our city was and how far it has come. We have much to celebrate.

"Take a look around - there are more of us. After 50 years of population loss, the City of Brotherly Love is growing again. More than two million people live here now.

"For this turnaround there are many groups to thank, but I'll focus on one: Philadelphia's foreign-born citizens. While immigrants have always come to Philadelphia, it is only in the last eight years that we have given them the wings they need to fly.

"Back in 2006, 11 percent of Philadelphians were foreign-born. Today, 21 percent are immigrants. In 2006, Philadelphia had 5,000 abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Today, investors are clamoring for commercial space. Natives of India and the Ukraine have opened businesses that are stabilizing North Philadelphia's economy. West African bodegas line Woodland Avenue, bringing prosperity both to their owners and to neighboring businesses.

"Back in 2006, Philadelphia was the site of 406 homicides. In the year we say good-bye to tonight, that number is 190. We never could have fought crime so effectively without the financial contributions of immigrant taxpayers, the vigilance of neighborhood watch groups, and a renewed willingness on everyone's part to look out for their neighbors.

"Immigrants have done much for Philadelphia, and the city, in turn, has reached out to them. We partnered with the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians to provide immigrants with a clearinghouse of information for finding jobs and starting businesses in the area. We dedicated funding for English as a Second Language classes. Back in 2006, cheesesteak vendor Joey Vento famously said that immigrants needed to learn English to succeed. You know, he was right - but we helped them do that by providing the teachers and materials they needed.

"We have developed a system for converting foreign educational and professional credentials into terms which area employers can understand. We're making it easier for the Nigerian scientist to give up his taxicab for a laboratory job. We want the Albanian mathematician teaching our students rather than delivering our pizzas. Integrating the foreign-born into our professional economy has been good for immigrants and vital to the city's economic comeback.

"Philadelphia has thrived because we have stopped seeing immigrants as victims who needed our charity and instead look upon them as business partners, social collaborators, and vital human resources. As your outgoing mayor, I am thrilled to be leaving you in the hands of my successor - who is himself an immigrant. Here's to our future!"


Contact Anne O'Callaghan at anne@welcomingcenter.org.