Cambridge is a city of immigrants.
Out of a total population of 106,844, an estimated 30,075 residents—28.15 percent—are foreign born, according to 2010- 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. That makes the city one of the top communities in Massachusetts for immigrant populations—perhaps unsurprising, given that City Council unanimously reaffirmed Cambridge’s status as a “sanctuary city” for undocumented immigrants in 2006. (Of the 28.15 percent of foreign-born residents, the number of voting-age non- or pre-citizen residents is estimated at more than 60 percent.) The number of applications for immigration is on the rise, according to the Boston Bar Association.
But are we doing enough for our immigrant populations— documented and otherwise?
This was the question recently raised by an advocacy group working with City Councilor Nadeem Mazen that has been organizing to create an immigrant affairs office in Cambridge.
Mazen oversees a number of advocacy commissions that regularly convene to discuss everything from public health to cyclist safety to voter engagement to campaign finance. “Basically, there’s a bunch of groups that have been meeting, and when they have an idea they shop it with other city groups,” Mazen explains. One of those groups, which is exploring a $15 minimum wage, was just turned into a mayor’s commission.
Led by the efforts of Sylvie de Marrais and Emmanuel “Manny” Lusardi, the immigrant affairs advocacy commission had been looking into the issues surrounding immigrant suffrage and non-citizen rights here in the city. Through this work, they discovered the Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship (CIRC), a decade-old city commission that was written into law in April 2006 but had since remained dormant. Thanks to renewed interest from the advocacy group, as well as the leadership of councilors Mazen and Tim Toomey and Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, the ordinance was re-enacted on May 9. The CIRC, an 11-member commission of volunteers, will begin meeting this fall.
“It’s not just a compromise,” says Mazen of the newly formed group. “It’s a better solution than what we had.”
It’s not entirely clear why the commission rested for 10 years with no city action, but Nancy Schlacter, executive director of the CIRC, says that the group initially formed as a preemptive strike against proposed federal legislation that would have criminalized civil violations of immigration laws. In 2006, she recalls, a number of states had deputized police to inquire about immigration status, and there were concerns that then-Governor Mitt Romney would enact similar measures in Massachusetts.
That tension is largely over, which, for a time, rendered the ordinance obsolete. “While the ordinance has been in place for a while, the energy behind it dissipated,” Schlacter explains.
But while the energy—and fear—that initially drove the ordinance may have died down, there’s an understanding that the city could be doing more when it comes to reaching its non-native communities. “There’s a revived interest in: what are we, and what aren’t we, doing for immigrants?” Schlachter says. The CIRC will revisit these issues, not because there’s pressure from the country or the state, but to figure out what Cambridge is doing well for its immigrant population and to determine what it can do better.
For Schlachter, the CIRC is largely about opening up a line of communication, “really, hearing from folks who are members of the immigrant community or work with immigrant-serving organizations about what their feelings are about the missing pieces in Cambridge.”
She imagines that one of those initial priorities will be improving translation services, which she says are robust in certain contexts and less so in others. Schlacter is also the executive director of the city’s of Human Rights Commission, and while her staff is multilingual, they do sometimes rely on a translation line.
But Schlacter is adamant that she’d rather hear from people who have been working in this field for years what they think the priorities should be. The city will likely perform a gaps analysis before it begins prioritizing the needs of non-native communities.
While immigrant services are already available through a host of local groups—the Community Engagement Center, the Community Learning Center, the Multi-Service Center for the Homeless—the CIRC hopes to connect those existing resources more efficiently.
“If someone is coming to the city not as a native English speaker … it can be that much more challenging trying to figure out how you get what you need and where,” Schlacter explains. “It really is to coordinate more effectively those services that already exist.”
“Pre-citizen families have questions about housing, engagement, after school programs, financial equity,” adds Mazen, “But there’s no group that thinks proactively about this, or thinks about this in quite this way.” The CIRC will align the services the city already provides and handle questions they’re already getting, creating a “central voice” for inquiries and the means to rapidly and effectively respond to concerns.
For Mazen, the rebirth of the CIRC is a victory for the “productive, group-oriented” engagement fostered by external advocacy groups. “These groups are a look at how everyday people can—and should—compete with full-time, paid, lobbying,” Mazen says.
“I think, often, people lobbying or being lobbied think that there are a lot of win-lose outcomes,” he adds. Instead, these advocacy commissions “show that you can get to a compromise very rapidly.”
This story originally appeared as “Power to the People” in our July/August print issue, which is available for free at nearly 200 locations throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.