When COVID hit, my team at the Hispanic Resource Center of Coastal Virginia noticed language barriers were keeping too many immigrants from getting tested and vaccinated. Ideally, the city of Norfolk would have hired additional multilingual health care workers or translators to improve access. It didn’t. Which meant independent organizations such as ours had to step up.

Since January, our partners at Hampton University and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, along with our team of volunteers, hosted 300 vaccination clinics targeting immigrant and minority residents. Thanks to our efforts, nearly 50% of city residents — both Spanish and English speakers — including 80% of those who are 65 and older, are now fully vaccinated.

It’s an example of how one attempt to help Norfolk’s immigrant community created positive outcomes for all communities. It’s also representative of why immigrant integration has improved: nonprofits, academic, private institutions and local residents have stepped up to support the 8% of city residents who hail from other countries. Unfortunately, we saw less leadership from the city itself. Now, as we look toward 2022, I’m calling on our local government to do its part to help all Norfolk residents succeed.

Every year, the nonprofit New American Economy’s annual Cities Index assesses how well the nation’s 100 largest cities help immigrants integrate. This year, Norfolk was one of the most improved. We earned perfect scores in three categories: “Civic Participation,” which looks at immigrant participation in public life; “Economic Prosperity,” which assesses how well immigrants can provide for their families; and “Livability,” which assesses their quality of life. Our growth in the “job opportunities” category — i.e. the number of immigrants in the workforce — saw special improvement.

I’d like to think HRCCOVA’s academic and workforce development programs played a role here. So did local companies that organized job fairs to entice workers back after quarantine lifted and the Small Business Administration, with its multilingual offerings. Before the pandemic, our foreign-born neighbors filled crucial jobs in our district’s agriculture, construction, manufacturing and hospitality industries, according to NAE. Worker shortages have only made these working-age residents more valuable and empowered them to hold $1.6 billion in spending power and pay $611.9 million in taxes.


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