How Philadelphia is advancing welcoming work through transparency and collaboration

In recent years, the community of welcomers in Philadelphia mobilized to support refugees arriving in the city. More than 25,000 Afghan refugees were welcomed through the Philadelphia International Airport between August 2021 and March 2022, and over 100 Haitians arrived in the city after the political unrest and natural disasters experienced in Haiti in August 2021.

“Prior to each of these quick community mobilizations, we celebrated a number of immigrant inclusion projects such as a permanent city office, a municipal ID program, and expanded language access policies. After consulting my colleague in Erie, Pennsylvania who shared their Certified Welcoming self-assessment and audit experience, I knew it was time for Philadelphia to also welcome an external audit of our work to help us identify our strengths and opportunities for more proactive immigrant inclusion,” says Amy Eusebio, director of Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

In February 2023, the City of Philadelphia became Certified Welcoming, making Pennsylvania the U.S. state with the most Certified Welcoming places in the country.

“The Office of Immigrant Affairs facilitated this process for our city. The main reason why we pursued this is because we really wanted to document and celebrate the local work,” says Eusebio. “Our team has really been focused on operationalizing and sustaining the work that has been done, and this certification process is a part of that.”

Eusebio worked closely with Alain Joinville, director of strategic communications and programs at the city, and Caroline Cruz, director of immigrant inclusion and language access in the Office of Children and Families to advance Certified Welcoming in Philadelphia.

Community-wide collaboration is a key factor for success in every Certified Welcoming place. The Office of Immigrant Affairs referenced the work of partners across the community during their self-assessment to showcase the entire ecosystem of immigrant inclusion.

Several of Philadelphia’s citywide initiatives highlight the collaborative nature of their welcoming work. For one, the Immigration Counsel at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office partners with the Pennsylvania Immigrant Family Unity Project to create pathways for representation in criminal court cases with immigration adjustment consequences. Once immigration legal issues are addressed, the partners continue to support individuals and families with housing. Their shared commitment to creating a more equitable and navigable justice system for immigrants was reflected in the Certified Welcoming audit report, where these efforts — among others — earned Philadelphia a score of 100/100 in the safe communities framework area of the Welcoming Standard.

In addition to community partnerships, city leadership was a key component of success that Eusebio identified during certification.

“Mayor Kenney has been a really big supporter and advocate for immigrant communities, being very tuned in to his own immigration story,” she says. “His leadership and his commitment when he became mayor is what has enabled the Office of Immigrant Affairs to become a permanent office, which was the highlight of our audit report. We are given a lot of room to work across the administration to promote immigrant inclusion and language access.”

Transparency around language access

A common theme among places striving to become Certified Welcoming is the imperative to implement and improve language access for immigrant residents.

Maria Giraldo Gallo, the director of language access programs at the City of Philadelphia, says, “This certification is really important to the language accessibility program because our program oversees the contracts for translation and interpretation in the city. We don’t do direct services to residents, but our team at the Office of Immigrant Affairs helps any employee who needs, let’s say, telephonic interpretation or an interpreter at an event.”

“There are a few things that we’ve done to increase the visibility of the program,” Giraldo Gallo shares. One of Philadelphia’s standout language access initiatives includes publishing a language services dashboard.

With the goal of increasing data transparency, the dashboard offers an opportunity to increase the accountability of city departments for providing interpretation and translation. City employees can use the dashboard to visualize the vast array of languages used within Philadelphia, the types of services requested, and which departments are making use of the available translation and interpretation services.

To take this work to the next level, the city’s language access program is collaborating on a special grant-funded project with the Office of Innovation and Technology. Through June 2023, the city offices are gathering community input about language access programs in the city and how community members prefer to receive local government communications. Most recently, the City of Philadelphia announced that it was expanding website language translations to improve language access.

“The grant is encouraging our team to look at translations in a more holistic way — not only a transaction of receiving content in English and turning back something in another language,” says Giraldo Gallo. “We’ve been doing some focus groups, incorporating what we hear as feedback to the professional linguists that are contracted with the city to provide the translations.”

Through language access initiatives, Philadelphia is striving to fundamentally improve access to city services and resources for immigrant communities.

Illuminating certification for the public

Following the announcement of Philadelphia’s certification in February 2023, the Office of Immigrant Affairs and Welcoming America hosted a virtual briefing session for the public to learn more about Certified Welcoming and the certification process for the city.

The session explained the rigorous process Philadelphia went through to become Certified Welcoming, offered context for their audit scores, and offered a look into the future of the city’s immigrant inclusion work. The Office of Immigrant Affairs team was eager to highlight the work that had been done for community partners or members that were not able to engage in the Certified Welcoming process.

Two participants who took part in the Certified Welcoming audit interviews shared their reactions to the audit process and learning about the work happening across their community.

“There was a labor lift to get everything in order, but what was great is that it really allowed me to reconnect with and remember all the work that’s happening in the city around developing welcoming strategies and working on immigrant rights. I think the pandemic, at least in my experience, was working a little bit within my own bubble. This was one of the opportunities where it was really lovely to reconnect and get to know work that I didn’t know was happening.” — Caleb Arnold, immigration counsel for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office

“When we were interviewed, I didn’t realize that we’ve accomplished so much over the years. I felt that Philadelphia had done a lot, especially for someone like me, who actually started with the Mayor’s Commission and then continued to work to expand the work of the City of Philadelphia and the welcoming agenda.” — Voffee Jabateh, member of the Mayor’s Commission on African and Caribbean Immigrant Affairs and executive director of African Cultural Alliance of North America

Reflecting on the public briefing session, the Office of Immigrant Affairs team noticed the community’s excitement about the Certified Welcoming designation. People were eager to be part of the ongoing celebration while knowing that there is more work to be done to advance Philadelphia’s welcoming efforts.

Philadelphia’s welcoming future

With many collaborators working to make Philadelphia a more welcoming place, Eusebio recognizes that the time is ripe to formalize a welcoming network within the city.

“Between Afghans, Haitians, Ukrainians, and now, migrants arriving from the U.S. southern border, there’s been a number of new and emerging communities in our city,” she reflects. “We’ve learned a lot from each of those experiences and we want to create ease for future groups that arrive in our city, and so we feel strongly about creating a welcoming network.”

Throughout the spring of 2023, Philadelphia’s Office of Immigrant Affairs is developing a task force that will plan the governance structure of the city-wide welcoming network.

Furthermore, the task force will provide guidance to the city to begin creating a formal welcoming plan. During their Certified Welcoming audit, the lack of a welcoming plan was identified as a gap in Philadelphia’s work. Eusebio sees this as a critical opportunity to bring partners together to identify goals and strategies for future work.

Reflecting on ways the Certified Welcoming audit report will shape Philadelphia’s future work, Eusebio says, “I’m the big-time nerd who really wants a report that tells me where we’re doing well and where we can improve as a jurisdiction. Having that third-party perspective to assess what we’re doing is incredibly valuable. It allows us to benchmark where we have made gains and set goals for what we can strive for.”

As the Office for Immigrant Affairs co-creates a welcoming plan and community-based welcoming network, new needs and opportunities will emerge. Ultimately, the team knows their collaborative approach will strengthen Philadelphia’s immigrant inclusion infrastructure.