Welcoming in the Crescent City: How nonprofits helped New Orleans become Certified Welcoming

In October 2023, New Orleans became the first place in Louisiana to earn the Certified Welcoming designation. Notably, New Orleans is also the first 1-star Certified Welcoming city under the new star designation system. We talked with leaders across the city to learn how community partnerships helped achieve the designation.

Relationships, trust, and power-sharing are at the heart of strong communities. As New Orleans deepens its commitment to welcoming, marked by the recent achievement of the Certified Welcoming designation, partnerships with local nonprofits and advocacy groups are one of the forces making the Crescent City a home for immigrants and refugees.

In many Certified Welcoming communities, the local government office that sets the strategy for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) is responsible for welcoming initiatives. This is the case in New Orleans. The Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Equity led the certification process for the community, bringing together and relying on the contributions of many community-based organizations.

“Creating a space in a specific office that’s thinking about human rights, people’s dignity, and their quality of life within a city is at the core of [our office’s] goals and values,” says Kahlida Lloyd, the director of the Office of Equity and Human Rights, reflecting on the role of the office in immigrant inclusion efforts and beyond. “When we think about equity, as Mayor Cantrell says, we think about ‘meeting people where they are,’ but also connecting and identifying the disparities that we see societally. A city government has the onus and the responsibility to help bridge that gap.”

Once the city saw how Certified Welcoming aligned with the mayor’s vision and goals of improving access to services across the community, the Office of Human Rights and Equity team moved forward with the process.

Together, the community met 16 criteria required to become 1-star Certified Welcoming. Initially, New Orleans sought certification under the original Welcoming Standard, which required communities to meet 45 core criteria. Once the new system rolled out, the city was excited for the opportunity to transition their assessment to the Welcoming Standard 2.0, become certified at 1-star, and have a clear path to continue improving their welcoming efforts.

“The new designation system made it easier for the city of New Orleans to gain that certification because there were a lot of changes that we needed to complete under the previous [system],” says Shakira Cruz Gonzalez, equity program manager at the city. “The new report was more digestible because it was broken up into tangible goals. With the new system, it’s little by little, you’re improving, and you have four years to move up those [stars].”

Most importantly, the certification process also gave the city the chance to lean into relationships with community organizations and partners that are already doing this work, but may not have had the chance to connect with the local government..

Shakira reflects, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to keep oiling it, adding more support to community organizations, and showing that the city is interested in making those policies and programs more accessible.”

Meet three of the community-based organizations that helped New Orleans achieve the Certified Welcoming designation.

Advocacy and increasing equitable access: Home is Here

In 2021, Home is Here opened its doors to coordinate community-based support with newly arriving immigrants – mostly asylum-seekers – who were being transferred to detention centers in Louisiana and unable to be released without sponsors and a place to live.

The co-directors of Home is Here, Julie Yael Ward and Lilian Johanna Alvarez, have been working in migrant justice and refugee protection for many years. They established Louisiana’s first connections to Welcoming America several years before Home is Here was founded when they partnered on a technical assistance grant to support New Orleans’ work to become more immigrant-inclusive.

“We understood that the majority of new immigrants in our region do not yet have legal status and are ineligible for government-funded benefits or resettlement services, and wanted to invest in the power of community-based relationships and infrastructure that are sustainable, not just short-term assistance,” Julie and Lilian say.

The City of New Orleans was encouraged and ultimately decided to pursue certification after a letter of recommendation from Home is Here.

“We believe it’s critical to support local government’s investment in systemic change,” share Julie and Lilian. “We appreciated the opportunity to honestly share our knowledge and experience in working with immigrant communities and partners in this city.”

During the audit by Welcoming America, Home is Here was highlighted for their work to address housing access for immigrants recently released from detention and their work to increase access to legal representation.

Julie and Lilian reflect, “One of the exciting ways we’re doing this [work] is by organizing people in support of immigrants impacted by detention in Louisiana. Led by Black, Indigenous, and trans women who are directly impacted and often most harmed by detention, we are bringing BIPOC and allies together in activities like detention visitation, letter writing, commissary/bond fundraising, coordinated advocacy, and leadership development.”

Furthermore, with a lack of legal resources available to newly arrived and asylum-seeking community members in the New Orleans area, creating access to communities of mutual aid support and pro bono attorneys is a critical gap that Home is Here fills.

During the city’s announcement of Certified Welcoming at a Little Amal event in October 2023, Home is Here introduced Mayor LaToya Cantrell and took part in the celebration of the city’s designation. “It was uplifting to see Mayor Cantrell and her team express their values and commitment to change in support of immigrant inclusion,” the team says.

Workers’ rights and licenses for all: Familias Unidas en Acción

In 2005, Leticia Casildo moved to New Orleans one month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the community. Thousands of Latino immigrants came to the city to help rebuild after the flood and storms, but instead of receiving fair pay and treatment, many faced wage theft, criminalization, and dehumanization simply because they were immigrants.

Leticia’s husband was among a group of workers who weren’t paid for three months of labor during the city’s rebuild. As someone who experienced and witnessed this climate disaster and its aftermath first-hand, Leticia knew she had a role to play in equipping and guiding fellow immigrants — especially Black immigrants and those with Indigenous backgrounds — with the knowledge they needed to protect their rights and establish roots in Louisiana.

In 2018, Leticia co-founded and became executive director of the nonprofit Familias Unidas en Acción (FUA). The needs of immigrant and refugee families drive the three pillars of their work: solidarity, resistance, and transformation.

“A lot of the families that we work with are still in the process of resistance and survival,” says Leticia, who shared her story in Spanish with the aid of an interpreter. “We seek transformation because we believe that with true access and opportunities, our families can have a different life.”

Leticia presents in front of an audience

Photo courtesy of Familias Unidas en Acción

On working with the City of New Orleans to achieve Certified Welcoming, Leticia says, “By connecting the people in my community with [city] authorities, they can see the true needs of the community, take into account how we can really address those needs, and take action.”

A cornerstone of FUA’s work is grassroots organizing. The organization has been involved in the national DALE Campaign, which aims to educate and mobilize immigrant workers to defend their rights, recover stolen wages, and address labor abuse issues. This effort intends to build economic opportunity and justice for newcomers in New Orleans and beyond.

“We worked on this campaign together with more than 50 national organizations,” says Leticia. “This is a very important issue for us because we need to protect workers who come to make this city beautiful. Often, these workers do not have food at home and are at risk of being separated from their families.”

Another critical issue that impacts immigrant families in New Orleans and across the state is driver’s licenses. Driver’s License for All is a campaign that aspires to improve the safety and livelihood of all residents of Louisiana, regardless of immigration status or country of origin. Shakira notes that this work is a highlight of FUA’s community leadership.

Nineteen states already have policies that improve access to driver’s licenses, auto insurance, and driver’s education for all residents, undocumented or otherwise. FUA aims to educate the immigrant community who would benefit from access to driver’s licenses, but also educate everyone about how this policy will benefit the state of Louisiana.

“Driver’s License for All is about dignity,” Leticia says. “The simple fact of having an identification card restores dignity to people and families.”

Solidarity with immigrant families is the core of Leticia’s organizing work. FUA plays a fundamental role in New Orleans’ journey to become a community where everyone belongs.

Small business support: El Centro

Lindsey Navarro, founder and executive director of El Centro, launched the organization in 2018 to support education gaps around asset-building and financial literacy in New Orleans’ Spanish-speaking communities.

“We’re helping folks register their businesses, helping them grow, access capital, and do all the things that they need to live better lives and create financial stability for themselves and their families,” says Lindsey.

Around 40% of El Centro’s clients are immigrants. The organization fills a key role in meeting the Welcoming Standard criteria that support immigrant business owners in starting, sustaining, or growing their businesses.

Some of El Centro’s offerings include:

All of these programs are offered in Spanish to reach the Latin American community, which is the fastest-growing population in New Orleans.

“Here in Louisiana, the Latino population post-Katrina has doubled, but the resources needed to address the community have not,” Lindsey shares. “There’s a growing need for access to information and resources. Being a part of the interview process for [Certified Welcoming], I was able to say we need to make sure that things are language accessible and that there is someone at the front desk at city hall who can speak multiple languages.”

The City of New Orleans has now developed a language and communication access plan and is in the process of hiring a coordinator to launch a pilot program.

Through an opportunity from the National League of Cities, El Centro partnered with the City of New Orleans to create a video in Spanish to teach people how to apply for their occupational and sales tax licenses.

“One of the challenges that we have with a lot of our customers is they tend to operate under-the-radar, informal businesses,” Lindsey shares. “When there are opportunities for growth, they’re usually the last to know about them or the last to be eligible because they don’t have an occupational license.”

The city’s Office of Economic Development trained El Centro’s staff on the process for applying for business licenses and made connections across different departments in the city that could be involved in this work. The video that resulted from the partnership wasn’t the only outcome of the collaboration.

“We’ve always had a relationship with the Office of Economic Development, but this program allowed us to deepen that relationship,” Lindsey says.

Finding ways to engage more Spanish-speaking business owners is central to El Centro’s mission and one of the key ways that they support a welcoming New Orleans.

The future of welcoming in Louisiana

On the road to increasing equity, inclusion, and belonging in New Orleans, the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Equity is looking forward to many new initiatives, including:

  • Implementing a language access strategy for the city government.
  • Developing a municipal ID program that will improve access to IDs for undocumented immigrants and unhoused people.
  • Furthering access to adult education, especially English language learning and job certification programs.
  • Finding ways to break down siloes and increase communication within the local government and with community partners.

With the Certified Welcoming star system to benchmark the next steps, Shakira says, “A big part of it is setting up a clear strategic plan of what we hope to accomplish within the next four years. It’s really important to show people who live here that they belong and that they are included in different aspects of the city, socially, culturally, and economically.”

For other communities interested in becoming Certified Welcoming, the Mayor’s Office of Human Rights and Equity highly recommends beginning with a collaborative approach from the beginning. For community organizations that are advocating for their local government to pursue certification, Kahlida says: “I think it’s important to identify a city entity that can take this on and has alignment in their office. If there isn’t one that exists, advocate for something like that to exist within a city government structure.”

Partners in New Orleans are hopeful for the future of welcoming in Louisiana. For one, they are eager to see more places in the state become Certified Welcoming, including the capital, Baton Rouge. They also look forward to building on the successes they’ve contributed to thus far and pushing the community to build greater equity for all.

“We are fighting for a welcoming city,” Leticia says. ”It is very important to be intentional and persistent with what we’ve already started to do.”

“We are encouraged by New Orleans’ commitment to this process, and we hope that it will result in real equity for New Orleanians who have been marginalized by systems that have excluded them,” Julie and Lilian say. “We dream of living in a community where immigrants of all kinds are not just welcomed but hold real power to design and lead the city’s governance and decision-making.”