City of Aurora: Office of International and Immigrant Affairs

As many cities and states across the United States continue to grow more ethnically and culturally diverse, city officials and their communities are coming together to promote immigrant integration. Local leaders of Aurora, Colo., created the Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, or OIIA, in 2015 to address the changing demographics of the city. The city government wanted to expand its efforts to improve how the city serves and integrates immigrants and refugees calling Aurora home.

The OIIA facilitates successful integration of newcomers into the city’s civic, economic, and cultural life and serves as liaisons between city officials and community members. OIIA also manages international relations, protocol activities and the citywide Language Access Plan. Upon the creation of the office, the OIIA spearheaded the implementation of Aurora’s first citywide immigrant integration strategic plan.

The immigrant integration strategic plan is two-fold, as it outlined recommended policies, programs and initiatives to promote successful integration. It also served as a commitment between community members and city officials to create a city welcoming for all. The OIIA believes it is every resident’s responsibility to participate and encourage immigrant integration. OIIA staff is very proud that Aurora is the only city in Colorado and one of the few cities in the country with a comprehensive and strategic immigrant integration plan at this time.

The OIIA is managed by a team of two city employees with the support of local volunteers and city interns; therefore, partnerships play a key role in the implementation and success of the city’s integration efforts. One accomplishment from the 2015 strategic plan that remains a prominent project in the community today is the Natural Helpers Program. This initiative offers training and resources to existing immigrant and refugee community leaders. Leaders in this program educate newcomers on how to navigate city systems and resources in order to accomplish tasks, such as obtaining a library card or setting up electric service. These are tasks that long-term residents in the community often do not realize are difficult for newcomers to complete due to lack of familiarity with the system, low English language proficiency, lack of transportation and other factors. The Natural Helpers Program is nationally recognized and has been replicated in 14 different cities. The program creates a tightknit network for the immigrant community and encourages community engagement. In Aurora, the OIIA oversees the program in partnership with the Village Exchange Center and the Aurora Community Connection both local nonprofit works closely with newcomers in the Aurora and Denver communities. Approximately, 150 newcomers have participated in the Natural Helpers Program and 40-45 community members have remained actively engaged, even throughout the pandemic.

Partnerships with local nonprofits are vital for supporting integration projects in the community. In an effort to expand on the first strategic plan, the OIIA joined forces with dozens of grassroots organizations, nonprofits, community members, and businesses, and released Aurora’s 10-year Immigrant Integration strategic plan: Aurora is Open to the World, late last year. “We rely heavily on the expertise and talent of our partners. They help provide technical assistance and host community events,” said Ricardo Gambetta, a manager at the OIIA. For example, the Aurora Global Fest, an annual celebration of the city’s cultural diversity, attracts over 12,000 people a year. While the celebrations this year may look different, it is a community event that many are looking forward too. “Immigrants are homegrown ambassadors to the world,” said Minsoo Song, an administrative specialist at the OIIA.

Immigrants and refugees have identified gaps in employment and language access as barriers that many in the community still face. Over the next ten years, the OIIA intends to expand funding and increase ESL class locations in partnership with nonprofits, public schools and faith-based organizations across the city. These partnerships will be in addition to utilizing new technology and tools and working with employers to support and promote English language training for the workplace. Collectively, with community partners, the OIIA has provided workforce development training and helped launch close to 60 immigrant-owned businesses, which have employed over 120 Aurora residents. The ten-year plan will continue to support and develop workforce development opportunities for the immigrant community — through job fairs, working with state officials to obtain professional certifications and licensees, and providing hands-on experiences.

The OIIA has strong relationships with various funders and foundations who provide monetary support. It is common for the OIIA to split funds with their local partners. Lastly, through the work of the OIIA, the city of Aurora recently secured the first diplomatic consular office of El Salvador and is currently working to secure a consular office of Korea next. “It’s not just the responsibility of the [immigrant] community … cities play an important role in integration. We have the role of facilitators, and it is our job to engage the whole community. It is in the best interest of everyone to promote integration and address issues as a community,” said Gambetta when discussing how various community members could support the office’s efforts to welcome and integrate newcomers.

CLINIC applauds the city of Aurora for their effective and commitment to promote integration in the community. Share with us how your city promotes integration!