A Two-Way Process: How Aurora, Colorado, Serves its Immigrant and Refugee Communities

Community building and collaboration are at the heart of the Aurora's programs for immigrants and refugees.

ARTICLE | Feb 12, 2019

Aurora is Colorado's third largest city with a diverse population of more than 374,000. Over the last 10 years the city has received a large number of immigrants, coming from all over the world, increasing the percentage of foreign-born residents to almost 20%. In welcoming its immigrant population, the city created the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs (OIIA) and the Comprehensive Strategic Plan 2015-2018 regarding policy, programs, and initiatives geared toward the integration of local immigrants and refugees. OIIA gathered a lot of feedback from the city’s immigrant and refugee populations for the plan to make sure that it met their needs. OIIA has recently evaluated how the plan was implemented and how the tactics and strategies in the plan have impacted the city and its immigrant and refugee populations.

City officials from Aurora who recently participated in the 2018 Local Government & Immigrant Communities Survey sat down with ICMA to offer a closer look at their immigrant and refugee support programs.

The Office of International and Immigrant Affairs (OIIA)

OIIA oversees the city’s policies and programs for its immigrant and refugee populations. The office manages relationships between the city and the Aurora Immigrant and Refugee Commission, Aurora International Roundtable, Aurora Global Fest and the Aurora International Cabinet. According to Ricardo Gambetta, manager of the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs for Aurora, “Integration is a two-way process; the host community tries to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees and expects immigrants and refugees to integrate well to the community life. Collaboration among organizations and between public and private sector is very important to achieve that.”

OIIA was recognized by the National League of Cities for promoting cultural diversity in Aurora through its City Cultural Diversity Awards in 2017.

Immigrant and Refugee Commission

The commission was established in 2015 to promote immigrants’ and refugees’ integration into the civic, economic, and cultural life in the city through civic engagement. Its main role is to advise the city council on policies related to the local immigrant and refugee populations. The commission has been assisting OIIA in its citywide outreach efforts to immigrant and refugee populations. The commission helped prepare for the city’s 10-year comprehensive plan, Aurora Places, in 2018 by conducting community outreach. As a result, the city was able to collect significant data points, ideas, policy recommendations, and feedback from its immigrant and refugee populations, which are included in the final version of the plan approved by the city council.

Programs to Support Immigrant and Refugee Populations

  • Natural Helpers Program: Aurora is one of the four cities that offer the Natural Helpers Program in the United States. The program provides training to Natural Helpers, who serve as key contacts in their immigrant communities and inform their community about available resources. The program is a joint project between OIIA and a local nonprofit working with immigrants and refugees, Village Exchange Center. OIIA provides funding and the local nonprofit manages the program. Assistance includes how to access city resources, how to register for health insurance, and a list of trusted service providers.

  • Global Teen Police Academy: OIIA, Aurora’s immigrant and refugee populations, and the Aurora Police Department have been working together to make the city a safer place. As a part of this collaboration, the Global Teen Police Academy was designed to establish trust between the police department and immigrant and refugee populations, as well as to promote careers in law enforcement. Occurring every summer, the academy teaches its participants the structure of the police force in Aurora, how to become a police officer, and how to be involved in community policing (as a member).

  • Startup Loans: Aurora is aware of increasing number of immigrant-owned small business and focuses on small businesses as a strategy to increase revenues and have new jobs and economic opportunities. In 2017, OIIA, a local nonprofit Community Enterprise Development Services (CEDS), and the Community College of Aurora partnered to create a combined entrepreneurship training and capital investment program for immigrants and refugees to encourage them to launch their own small businesses.

  • Health Powers Life Campaign: In 2017, OIIA partnered with the Tri-County Health Department in Colorado and CREA Results for the Health Powers Life Campaign to promote healthy lifestyles among the city’s immigrant and refugee populations. The campaign employed the city’s existing health care infrastructure and organizations to raise awareness about the benefits of preventative health care among the immigrant and refugee populations with a health mobile unit across the city.

  • Global Fest: OIIA partners with the International Roundtable, which was established to promote international business activities and recognize the international community’s economic, cultural, and civic contributions, to host an Annual Global Fest. The Global Fest is a day to celebrate the city’s diversity and contributions of the immigrant and refugee populations to the city. It is city’s premier international event with more than 12,000 people attending. 

Lessons Learned

OIIA has made significant progress on the majority of the goals and objectives stated in the comprehensive strategic plan. OIIA enabled creation of some innovative programs for immigrants and refugees to provide them tools, platforms, and opportunities that they need to integrate and contribute to the community. Gambetta explains that “These programs touch almost every pathway of immigrant and refugee integration in the city. The big lesson here is that immigrant integration is a critical issue for any community in America and cities should take a very holistic and strategic approach to deal with the immigrant integration challenge. Local government needs to establish key partnerships with local organizations (non-profits, faith-based organizations, private sector, academia, schools, immigrant and refugee organizations) in order to work together on this kind of programs and efforts."

Aurora’s overall approach towards its immigrant and refugee populations and efforts to integrate them can be applied in other communities worldwide. Although it may not be easy in every community, developing a continuous relationship and communication with immigrant and refugee populations is an important launch point for communities with significant immigrant and refugee populations.

To read more about local governments working with immigrant communitites, check out the 2018 Local Government & Immigrant Communities Survey or read the full report.

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