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Immigrants in Charlotte join statewide discussion on equity

Sarai Ordonez with the Camino Research Institute shares her thoughts on serving immigrant communities during a break-out session with representatives of Governor Roy Cooper's office.
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Sarai Ordonez with the Camino Research Institute shares her thoughts on serving immigrant communities during a group session with representatives of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's office.

Representatives of Gov. Roy Cooper’s office recently met with immigrant and refugee community members in Charlotte to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion.

The evening was part of a state listening tour to better understand what newcomers need regarding health care, education and well-being.

Nearly one in 10 North Carolinians are now born outside of the United States. In Mecklenburg County, the foreign-born population reaches 16%.

State administrators are working to better understand this population through a cross-agency group focused on immigrants and refugees.

“We're going to continue to build a North Carolina where people are better educated, where they're healthier, where they have more money in their pockets and have the opportunity to have lives of purpose and abundance,” Cooper said in a video message shared Thursday evening to about 100 people at north Charlotte’s Camino Community Center. “And that means making our state a more inviting and equitable place for everybody, including our immigrant and refugee communities.”

Residents were invited to spend the evening sharing their experiences and suggestions for accessing public services directly with state officials at the Camino center, where many immigrants and refugees access low-cost health care.

During a panel discussion, Federico Rios, with Charlotte’s Office of Equity, Mobility, and Immigrant Integration, emphasized the importance of building trusted spaces, like Camino and the Latin American Coalition, that allow immigrants to connect with the community and local services.

“The key to integration is first recognizing that immigrant integration is a facet of equity,” Rios said. “Oftentimes when we talk about equity in our community, we're talking about the historic divide between Black and white. And we're not allowing space for what has become a sizable part of our community.”

Panelist Lennin Caro, a Camino researcher, identified the need for language accessibility in health and education. To understand immigrant needs, he explained, decision-makers first need to speak with them.

“I think before we pass legislation or policy, we should really have research to inform what kind of policies and what kind of laws we should pass. Unfortunately, right now, there's not enough research on Latino immigrants or immigrants in general,” Caro said. “We need to have more funding and resources dedicated to generating that research before we make that decision.”

Members of the Interagency Working Group for New Americans introduce themselves to the public at Camino.
Kayla Young
WFAE/La Noticia
Members of the Interagency Working Group for New Americans introduce themselves to the public at Camino.

Immigrant community members and leaders had the chance to share their input in a series of group sessions, led by members of the governor’s office, including Catherine Rivera from the Department of Commerce.

“What are some of the best channels or practices to connect immigrants with state resources?” Rivera asked one of the groups. “Some of what has been said already is face-to-face communication, going to festivals, going to places within the community. Are there any other resources that ya'll [can] think of?”

Camino’s Sarai Ordonez pointed to the need to help community members navigate and process their unique experiences.

“We found that about a quarter of Latino immigrants struggle managing their stress. So having different coping mechanisms and understanding that what a Latino or immigrant thinks is stressful is very different than an American,” Ordonez said. “Immigrating is such a different experience and for some can be even traumatic. So understanding that what they consider stressful might not be what we consider stressful.”

The Office of the Governor held a similar listening session with immigrants and refugees in Raleigh last December.

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Kayla Young is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race, equity, and immigration for WFAE and La Noticia, an independent Spanish-language news organization based in Charlotte. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.