Welcoming Chula Vista

Promoting immigrant integration and fostering a community of inclusivity and dignity has always been part of the fabric of the community for Chula Vista, Calif. The city is located seven miles from downtown San Diego and seven miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, marking it “the center of one of the richest cultural, ethnically diverse and multilingual communities in the United States,” according to the City Manager’s webpage.

In 2017, shortly after the Trump administration issued the Muslim ban, Chula Vista residents reached out to city officials expressing their concerns about the message this was sending to newcomers. After speaking with community members, the city quickly jumped into action to cement and codify its integration efforts. The city immediately reinstated the Human Relations Commission, bringing together eleven community members who represent local nonprofit, business, education and advocacy groups, with a goal to uphold equal opportunities for everyone, regardless of immigration status. Secondly, the Chula Vista Chief of Police issued a statement of solidarity with the immigrant community, noting that local officers would not enforce federal immigration laws. The city of Chula Vista is unique since it does not have a citywide strategic plan or a dedicated office for immigrant advancement. Integration initiatives are overseen by the City Manager’s office and are supported by community members and local partners.

The established commission offers guidance and recommendations to the Mayor, City Council and the City Manager on initiatives to promote the city’s diversity. In 2019, Chula Vista became the first city in the state to become Certified Welcoming. “It was very rewarding to see that we were already doing this work. Our goal now is to enhance what we’ve been doing,” said Anne Steinberger, marketing and communications manager for the City of Chula Vista and co-liaison to the Human Relations Committee. To receive this certification from the organization Welcoming America, cities and counties go through a rigorous evaluation and must demonstrate their commitment to welcoming all residents through the implementation of inclusive policies and practices. Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas — who made history in 2014 after becoming the first Latina Mayor — is a strong supporter of the city’s integration efforts.

For over twenty years, the city has partnered with nonprofits, schools, healthcare centers and local officials to meet the needs of community members through the Chula Vista Community Collaborative. After becoming Certified Welcoming, the Human Relations Commission collaborated with nonprofits, residents, and city officials to develop the Welcoming Chula Vista Implementation Plan, which outlines various initiatives and recommendations to increase integration and promote inclusivity among the community. For example, local nonprofits will use the promotora model to engage and establish trust with community members in order to identify barriers that are preventing the community from accessing city services and programs. Prior to the pandemic, the city was in the process of collaborating on community-wide events, to promote diversity of residents. Events included Neighbor Day, Bonita Fest, Mariachi Festival and Music in the Park, to name a few. While large group gatherings are currently on hold, the city hopes to encourage resident participation through civic engagement by changing current policies and increasing opportunities for the immigrant community to engage in city council meetings or committees. Currently, most city commissioners need to be registered voters in order to participate; however, the Human Relations Committee collaborated with the Charter Review Commission to work with the city council and will allow residents with or without documented status to participate. The city currently has 22 active commissions for all residents to join and contribute to influencing policies, such as candidate forums, budget and transportation. Residents are also strongly encouraged to attend and participate in city council meetings and other public hearings. By expanding opportunities for civic engagement, the city can receive diverse views and input from residents with different lived experiences. Other initiatives include collaborating with public schools to work with immigrant students achieving higher education through information sharing, offering financial assistance workshops, education counseling and advocacy for in-state tuition.

“There is so much you can do, when you work together”, said Steinberger. While the city has been limited in its implementation of the 2019 recommendations due to the pandemic, the city joined forces with partners to offer relief to families and individuals impacted by the pandemic. For cities and nonprofits looking to collaborate to support newcomers in their community, Steinberger encourages city officials “to listen and talk to the community, as well as look at what services you are currently offering… you may be closer than you think [to promoting immigrant integration in the community]”.

CLINIC applauds the city of Chula Vista for their continued efforts to promote integration and inclusivity and to create a community of safety and welcoming. Are you engaging with your city officials to promote integration? Share your efforts with us to be featured in CLINIC’s monthly newsletter.