Harnessing a history of welcoming in Detroit

In April 2022, the City of Detroit, Michigan became the first place to become Certified Welcoming in the state. In this blog, we spoke with Roberto Torres, Director of Immigrant Affairs and Economic Inclusion for the City of Detroit, on the journey to achieve the Certified Welcoming designation.


In 2015, the mayor of Detroit established the Office of Immigrant Affairs at a time when immigration work around the country was on an upswing. 

Things changed in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. When Roberto joined the city government in 2018, he saw the concerns from across the community, particularly from refugee resettlement agencies that were beginning to experience decreased funds and lower figures for the number of refugees admitted to the United States. 

“We wanted to change the narrative in Detroit and show that what’s happening in Detroit is different from what’s happening across the country, that we were welcoming to all,” Roberto said. “Having the Certified Welcoming designation would separate us from other communities and show that we were proud to be a community of immigrants and refugees.”

A history and background of welcoming

When asked what makes Detroit a uniquely welcoming city, Roberto cites the city’s history of being a place where bridges can be built. In 1972, Detroit was one of the cities to host the national table tennis teams of the U.S. and China as part of the “ping pong diplomacy” tour led by the Nixon administration, beginning the thaw in relations between the two countries.  

“Detroit has always been an international, welcoming city. This rich history positions Detroit to harness that historical background and move it forward,” Roberto says.

Long before Detroit became a global city, it was already home to one of the largest Black communities in the United States. To this day, Black people comprise 78% of the city’s population, according to the 2020 census; yet, inequities persist for Black residents in housing, wealth, education and other essential areas. 

As people from other countries began moving to the city and surrounding area, Detroit also became home to the second largest Arab-American population in the nation, as well as a sizable Latinx population (around 8%). While this may contribute to some racial tensions, it is also clear that immigrant-serving organizations have sought to ensure their services and programs include the Black community. 

One example is the nonprofit Global Detroit’s Social Cohesion Project. Composed of several programs and initiatives, the project brings together the Black community and immigrants in the East Davison Village and Banglatown neighborhoods to build trust, solidarity, and relationships around shared challenges. This includes community safety, education, affordable housing, and more.


Aligning Certified Welcoming with greater equity

As in many cities, the work of connecting with immigrant communities and on broader equity issues tends to get siloed. This was initially the case in Detroit, and one of the challenges Roberto faced in achieving the Certified Welcoming designation. 

“Before, there was no opportunity to collaborate with other departments,” Roberto said. “[The Certified Welcoming process] allowed for that.” One example is the resettlement of Afghan refugees following the departure of U.S. military forces from the country in August 2021. 

“We needed to work with housing, employment, support services, and many other departments. The networks that were created from the Certified Welcoming process helped us to do this,” he said. 

The process also brought the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs closer in engagement to the Detroit Equity Council launched by Mayor Mike Duggan in 2020. By including the immigrant community in the city’s broader work on equity, Detroit is now more effectively positioned to address race, equity, and inclusion issues more holistically, and a model for other large cities to follow.


Welcoming moving forward

Ultimately, the goal for the City of Detroit was not just to gain the Certified Welcoming designation, but to have a deeper means of engagement with the community. What helped Roberto was having the city’s immigration task force to lean on for support. The task force was created by the Detroit city council and consists of 26 members representing the various immigrant and refugee communities across the city. 

“By having the task force members involved in the Certified Welcoming process from the beginning helped the city embrace the designation. Although the process was guided by the city, it wasn’t driven by it; the community did,” said Roberto. He recommends that cities looking to become Certified Welcoming follow a similar model. 

Another outcome of the designation is the city’s approval to fund a strategic welcoming plan for Detroit. The city is currently preparing to issue a request for proposals for this plan.

Finally, the Certified Welcoming process also helped Roberto connect with partners that he “never would have engaged with otherwise.” This includes immigrant affairs departments in other Certified Welcoming cities such as Dallas, Baltimore, and Minneapolis-St.Paul that are doing similar work and face similar challenges.