Local city government promotes immigrant integration through Division of Immigrant Affairs

Jersey City, N.J., was recently designated the most diverse, and the second most welcoming city in the nation. The city embraces this honor and continues to promote immigrant integration through community-based public health strategies.

“These are high profile achievements, and it speaks to the fact that we don’t just call Jersey City a Sanctuary City, we act like one,” Mayor Steven M. Fulop recently shared. “We will continue to expand our critical services to immigrant residents, regardless of status, which ultimately leads to long-term success and well-being for our city as a whole.”

In 2019, CLINIC welcomed Jersey City’s Division of Immigrant Affairs, or DIA, to its network of affiliates. After attending various multi-day trainings offered by CLINIC and receiving support from CLINIC’s field support coordinators, DIA applied for DOJ Recognition and Accreditation: a federal certification that allows non-attorney staff to provide immigration legal services to underserved immigrants. Following an extensive vetting process from three federal agencies, DIA received its R&A in August 2020, making Jersey City the first city in the nation to earn the distinction. Today, DIA staff offer free immigration legal services to those seeking naturalization and other benefits.

DIA is housed at the nationally recognized Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services, or JCHHS, and takes a holistic approach to integration in the context of public health. “Integration is essential to public health,” said JCHHS Director Stacey Lea Flanagan. “In a city where two-in-five residents are foreign-born, immigrants’ health is everyone’s health.”

For Mike McLean, the DIA director at JCHHS, this means finding the most meaningful ways to include immigrants in the city’s public health strategy.

“It’s about cultivating relationships and accompanying immigrants as they seek relief within one of the most daunting systems in the U.S.: Immigration,” McLean states. “By providing free, trusted, and federally-accredited immigration services, we are addressing fears and uncertainty that are social determinants of health, and we are also facilitating broader access to health services.”

“I think there are many immigrants that will benefit from this Jersey City being part of the R&A program,” said Minyoung Ohm, a CLINIC field support coordinator. “And Mike is the person to really make this program successful given his legal astuteness and passion for serving the community.”

When immigrants seek free immigration services at DIA, they also receive help overcoming barriers to health. DIA staff provide close guidance for an array of city benefits that are open to all, regardless of status, like the WIC (Women, Infant, Children) food and nutrition program, the STD and immunization clinic, lead inspection and treatment, food vouchers, mental health support, and health education. An essential tool to DIA’s community navigation program is its colorful, multi-lingual Resource Guide for Immigrants, which features hundreds of free services and tutorials.

“The most important parts of immigrant integration are found in partnerships,” McLean said. “To truly serve immigrants, we need meaningful and active bonds with service providers, cultural organizations, community leaders—because no one can do this work alone.”

To this end, DIA holds joint-sponsored service events about once a month, and hosts an Annual Immigrant Affairs Symposium to celebrate the success of service organizations and their immigrant clients. These partners form a substantial part of the Partnership for a Healthier Jersey City, a network of community based organizations invited to apply for mini-grants, use free community mapping and referral software, and contribute to public health strategy. “There is only so much one agency can do,” JCHHS Director Stacey Lea Flanagan points out. “But if we can serve as the connective tissue for a community of agencies, then we can really work together in meaningful ways.”

When Jersey City became a COVID-19 hotspot in the spring of 2020, its investments in integration made an enormous different. As the region’s first to initiate its own testing program through an exclusive laboratory contract, Jersey City depended on DIA’s network of partners to engage immigrant communities, who responded by sharing multi-lingual advisories and coming forward to be tested. PPE was distributed to all, especially to the city’s frontline workers (more than 50 percent of which are immigrants), and DIA was a leader in launching the city’s emergency food delivery program.

In a dramatic demonstration of Jersey City’s integration successes, refugees and asylees with foreign medical credentials were hired to administer COVID-19 tests, following the state’s emergency loosening of licensure requirements. “Within sight of the Statue of Liberty, immigrants who fled danger in their home countries were rising to the occasion to protect their new neighbors from the dangers of the virus,” McLean said. These efforts earned Jersey City another national distinction as one the nation’s twelve leaders of immigrant integration in Covid-19 relief and recovery.

“DOJ Accredited legal services is one way we offer a specialized form of help,” McLean said. “But we know the most meaningful work is done in partnership, with immigrants and for immigrants. Jersey City is showing that these investments in integration benefit all of us, foreign-born and native-born.”

CLINIC applauds Jersey City, DIA and HHS for their efforts and commitment in promoting immigrant integration.

For the opportunity to be next month’s CLINIC affiliate highlight, share with us how your local government is promoting immigrant integration! Learn about joining CLINIC’s Network. See where your city falls on NAE’s Cities Index and check how your state fairs in Immigrant Professional Integration.