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Welcoming is our future. And welcoming is for all of us. All of us. We are all in.

In conjunction with Immigrant Heritage Month, we share a manuscript by Rachel Perić, executive director of Welcoming America, delivered on April 11, 2024 at the opening plenary of the 2024 Welcoming Interactive conference in Dallas, Texas. It has been lightly edited for web publication.

To my Muslim brothers and sisters, I want to wish you Eid Mubarak.

It is so wonderful to be here in the Certified Welcoming city of Dallas, Texas, a city with a rich history and a practice of striving to keep doing better. In so many ways, we stand in the long stream of history here to begin, to add our piece, to the work of reconciliation, healing, and building a society where all of us can truly be equal, where all of us can belong and thrive in the places we call home, no matter where we come from.

And so, we are together here in Texas with a message, represented by the 800 leaders here in this room, that:

Welcoming is possible.

Welcoming is working.

Welcoming is our future.

And welcoming is for all of us. All of us. We are all in.

We are also a community here — I want you to know and feel that you’re not alone.

We have an incredible program that, in this moment where so much feels challenging, is all about what is possible.

Thank you to the City of Dallas for being such phenomenal hosts.

Thank you to all our sponsors, partners, speakers, members, and the incredible Welcoming America staff and board for making these few days together possible.

I want to take you to my grandmother’s kitchen table, where I grew up with the smells of potatoes and onions frying in the background. While my grandmother would feed me the food she grew up with, she would tell me about coming to America and about the world and the family that she lost in the Holocaust.

It was a story that was rooted in the worst of what we can do when we dehumanize one another, much like the tragedies that continue to unfold around the world, from Gaza to Sudan, and even to what we are seeing today in American politics.

These are the bitter stories that grandmothers around the world have been handing down for centuries, while at the same time trying to nourish us, feed us, with strength and with love.

And that’s what those stories were for me. They weren’t just filled with hate and despair but with good people, people who risked their lives to help my grandmother survive.

I always knew that I wanted to be brave like my grandmother, and brave like those people, the righteous people who stood up for their neighbors, who could tune out the propaganda just enough to understand that just because a regime had labeled a people “less than” or “inhuman” did not make that true.

My grandmother was 15 when she said goodbye to her family, set off with a sister, and made up false identities for themselves so that no one would know they were Jewish, as they searched for a place far enough away from home where no one would ask them for their papers to prove otherwise.

Years later, a group of migrant women from Central America heard my grandmother’s story. “Oh,” they said, “your grandmother was undocumented. She didn’t have papers. We understand.”

It hit me like a gut punch.

Yes, there was a lot about our stories that were different, but at the core, this question of defining a person as legitimate based on a little piece of paper rather than based on their humanity — there was something to that.

And that made me curious. Curious to learn about our history. To learn how, in the era of slavery in the United States, slave patrollers would stop free African Americans on the road to ask for their papers. And if they couldn’t produce their Freedom Papers, they would be re-enslaved with the full blessing of the law. Because that little piece of paper was more important than their humanity.

After emancipation, after the 14th Amendment granted full citizenship and rights to anyone born in the U.S., many southern states, including Texas, immediately started finding workarounds to keep exploiting people for their labor. They passed their own Black Codes which restricted people’s access to working, voting, and free movement, and under Jim Crow, continued finding creative ways to use the law to strip people of their ability to be full citizens, fully equal.

This second-class status and repression eventually led to the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million Black Americans out of the South. Which then gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement that made it possible for so many people, not only here in the U.S. but around the world, to imagine and fight for equal status, including Indigenous Americans, who, despite being the original people of this land, were only granted full citizenship in 1924 and Voting Rights in 1965 — and who still struggle for their rights to be fully honored.

When large numbers of Chinese immigrants started arriving in the late 19th century to build our infrastructure, Congress responded by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. That act set up a legal framework to use race and origin to exclude people from entering the U.S. But it also created a way to categorize people already here based on different levels of legal status.

The law explicitly prevented Chinese Americans from ever becoming citizens, making them constantly vulnerable to deportation, like so many immigrants living today with temporary forms of status. And it required that they register and carry at all times special ID cards. A little piece of paper that defined their second-class, unequal status.

So that when — fast forward to 1930s Germany when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were looking for a way to create a legal framework to deny Jewish people, and later Black and Romani people, of their basic rights and protections — it was this American creation of racially based second-class citizenship that became the inspiration for the Nuremberg Laws.

The inspiration for enshrining in law a hierarchy of human value.

Late last year, the state of Texas passed Senate Bill 4, the latest in a long, long line of “show me your papers” laws, which represent another chapter in the ugly playbook used to define people by their so-called legality, by their identity as “other” rather than “us.”

To categorize people in a hierarchy of human values, based on origin and race and class.

We are a nation of laws, a nation with a border, a nation with customs and norms. But no piece of paper can confer our humanity and rights. We are born with those. As our own founding documents say: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

Our humanity isn’t rooted in our status. Our status is rooted in our humanity.

Now, I know it would be so much easier if we could just set aside the thorny issue of status, if we could just talk about how immigration is great, how immigrants are great. How if we just let in this number, these ones — the right ones, the deserving ones — everything will be solved. We could be welcoming.

But if at the root of this immigration debate is the question of who is entitled to belong, of who is deserving of basic rights and freedoms, we will never change the game if we just keep reshuffling the cards to this era’s choice of deserving immigrant, safest immigrant, or most useful immigrant.

The immigration debate will never be resolved if we make it about finding the right people. It’s a question of being the right people. It’s a question of seeing each other as people, above all else.

This is a choice. A moral choice. It carries risks. Even under the Nazi regime, people had the choice to see each other’s humanity. It wasn’t easy. The risks were high. And they are still high. But let me say here that they will be far higher if we don’t take them now, if we don’t stand up for people on the basis of their humanity, not on the basis of their so-called legality.

Recently, I heard the Mayor of Lampedusa, Italy say, “When a migrant child washes up on your shore and needs medical care, you don’t stop to ask him for his paperwork.”

I understand that it’s not always so simple that we are challenged in this work because this is an issue and a history that many Americans don’t know.

Because our communities are being deliberately fed narratives, day after day, told that they should be afraid that someone else is just about to take what’s rightfully ours.

That our safety depends on resisting the “invasion,” the great replacement. That safety and power can only come from an exclusive, gated society, whether that’s a segregated neighborhood or a country that draws up the bridge to the world or only offers entry to a select few.

Right now, whether we want to be or not, we are competing with this vision, as it pits the next generation of immigrants against the last one, immigrants against U.S.-born.

And then uses this fracture, this manufactured competition, to undermine protections and policies that could better support all of us, help all of us get to the safety, agency, and well-being that we all deserve, regardless of race, origin, class, religion, ability, age, gender, or gender identity.

We will be safer and more powerful when we stop letting ourselves be divided.

We will be safer and more powerful when we cooperate to solve problems instead of making each other the problem.

Fifteen years ago, Welcoming America came together around a very simple idea enshrined in our tagline: “Building a nation of neighbors.”

Seeing each other as neighbors, being good neighbors, is how we get to safety, agency, and power that doesn’t fall back on our worst fears but leans into our strongest values.

Around the world, we have these traditions — as simple as sitting at the table together, exchanging stories, sharing our food and ourselves, building our trust in each other.

Reminding ourselves that being a good neighbor has nothing to do with our identity, or whether we have just arrived or been here for generations.

This isn’t some theoretical idea. This is the work you in this room are doing every day, to chip away at myths that some of us are simply better then others, more deserving, and to create policies that make it easier for all of us to thrive, all of us to belong, in the communities we call home.

This is the welcoming way.

This year, Welcoming America celebrates our 15 year anniversary. We’ve just published the first-ever State of Welcoming, which chronicles how the vision of a welcoming community has spread around the world as a mighty force for good.

Today, we are linked in a global Welcoming International Alliance, a network that collectively makes up nearly 600 community institutions around the world. I want to give a special shout out to our global partners here. We have so much to learn from each other.

Here in the U.S., our members in nearly every state in the nation are building welcoming infrastructure: broad community coalitions of business, faith, nonprofit, philanthropy, residents and government, including well over 100 local government offices and dedicated staff positions that have been stood up over the last decade.

Today, one in 15 Americans — over 22 million people — lives in a city or county which, like Dallas, has been certified as welcoming, backing up its values with policies and programs.

In our founding years, back in the era of the first “show me your papers” laws, the first welcomers could not have imagined all that we’ve done together, or that across the country, over 1,000 welcoming policies and programs are being put in place every year to bring down barriers to participation and build stronger communities.

These welcoming policies and programs that you in this room have created are reinforcing trust and connection, in parks, on soccer pitches, in libraries, and among neighbors solving problems together — the foundation of a healthy civic culture.

You have strengthened participation in the workforce and on main street, helping millions of people to access capital, open businesses, find employment, and contribute to a thriving economy for all.

You have worked to build inclusion, counteract racism and hate, deescalating fear and making communities more resilient to scapegoating and bigotry, especially as we enter another contentious election season.

In communities large and small, rural and urban, your work to make sure origin, language, race, and status aren’t barriers to thriving have made it possible for residents to benefit from more equitable, more effective, and more efficient public services, from healthier communities for everyone.

And especially in the most challenging moments, when it comes to our immigration policy, you’ve shown again and again that local leadership matters. That cities and towns are the first line of action, and often, the last line of defense.

And that despite challenges, we are forging ahead. I hope you’ll read more about State of Welcoming online and see the incredible arc of progress, despite challenging moments.

Which brings me to the topic of the so-called “migrant crisis.”

Today, there’s a lot of talk about a migrant crisis not only at the border, but in our nation’s cities. And certainly, it is a challenging situation when thousands of new people arrive, especially without being granted the status to work.

But I reject this idea of a migrant crisis, because the crisis isn’t migrants.

This isn’t a crisis of migrants, but a crisis of our democracies to deliver on the promise of equality, both for people already here and those fleeing conflict, inequality, and climate change around the world.

It’s a crisis for all of us who are counting on the ideals of freedom and equality to win. Religious minorities, LGBTQ+ people, people who speak out against oppressive regimes, stateless people. And also, people born in this country, working people, poor people, Black people, white people, Indigenous people. We are all deserving.

If there is a crisis, it’s a crisis of leadership. We need leaders, just like those of you in this room, who remind us that incorporating new people is challenging, but it’s also possible, and we don’t need to sacrifice our values or treat people as subhuman for all of us to get to a place of safety and security. And prosperity — including a $7 trillion boost in GDP from immigration, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

By building welcoming infrastructure, we can capitalize on this opportunity, shift from crisis to capacity, from fear and scarcity to a future that has enough for all of us.

Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean once said when immigrants choose your city, that is a great honor. So let us be deserving of this honor, and build from a position of strength.I am confident that we can because we already are. Right here in this room, we already are showing that:

Welcoming is possible.

Welcoming is working.

Welcoming is our future.

And welcoming is for all of us.

This isn’t a question of, “Can it be done?”. It’s a question of the courage and conviction to stand steady in moments of deliberate polarization and scapegoating and maintain our north star, our shared humanity.

We should expect that of our leaders — including our federal government. I’m delighted that we will be joined by senior Administration officials as we continue to urge our federal government to expand its support for this work and to see your leadership, the leadership in this room as representative of the broad-based constituency that stands behind welcoming values and policy.

I want you to feel like heroes. You are my heroes. For the last 15 years, you have done three key things that have made it possible for this room, this movement, to keep growing stronger:

First, keep widening the circle. A welcoming movement is just that: welcoming. An invitation, without judgment, for everyone to be part of this work, creating space for the missing conversations, and bringing neighbors together to humanize each other. So share your kitchen table stories, and then, pass the microphone.

Secondly, let’s keep being clear not only about what we are against, but what we are for. We are for everyone’s safety, prosperity, and well-being. We need to keep educating our communities about why things like legal status and historical exclusion from opportunity require deliberate efforts to get there. Welcoming is a universal story, and the future of welcoming belongs to all of us.

Finally, in a moment where the world wants us to feel defeated, overwhelmed, lonely, and hopeless, let’s be the community that we need. Extend care, hope, possibility, pragmatism, and joy to each other.

And let's keep learning from each other.

Rachel Perić is Executive Director of Welcoming America. Inspired by her family’s refugee story and by the worldwide movement of welcomers, Rachel works to create communities where all residents – including immigrants and refugees – can thrive and belong.

Since joining the organization in 2011, she has served as the organization’s deputy director and in other senior leadership roles, helping to grow Welcoming America from a startup to an award-winning organization with a global footprint.

Prior to Welcoming America, Rachel served as Executive Director of the Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy (MCAEL), a community literacy coalition that strengthens and promotes adult literacy and English language learning in suburban Washington, DC, where she was recognized with the Rising Star Award by Montgomery Women. Rachel also served as Regional Director of the United Way of the National Capital Area, where she led fundraising and community impact efforts in Montgomery County, MD. She began her career managing international development programs with a private consulting firm, Management Systems International (MSI).

As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Rachel also serves on the board of Art and Remembrance, a nonprofit dedicated to using art and personal narrative to recognize individual courage and resilience. Rachel holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Johns Hopkins University and a Master's in Public Management from the University of Maryland.

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