In 2002, shortly before the Iowa caucuses, billboards began popping up in small towns across the state. The signs, featuring archival photos of German, Scandinavian and Eastern European immigrants -- all of whom had emigrated in numbers to the state in past generations -- read: "Welcome the Immigrant You Once Were."
The billboards were part of a statewide effort to influence the discussion on immigration, according to Devin Burghart, Vice President of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and one of the campaign's organizers. "We saw efforts to toxify the climate, to make it less hospitable to new immigrants into the state," he says. "We knew where things were going [on immigration], but we had a hard time convincing people that it was going to get as nasty as it did."
The current tenor of the immigration debate makes 2002 -- a time when Jan Brewer was still largely unknown to the American public -- look like the Golden Age of Tolerance.
But, even though the tone of the national debate has heated up, communities in several states across the country are coming together to address the anxiety and fear surrounding immigration in a bid to strengthen ties between foreign born and native residents.
Born out of those first billboards in Iowa, the effort coalesced into a national group called Welcoming America in 2007. Four years later, the movement is currently operating in 15 states: from Birmingham, Alabama to Crete, Nebraska to Yamhill County, Oregon.
Along with billboards, there are now posters, radio ads, and television PSAs extolling welcoming messages. Complementing these efforts are dances, potlucks and picnics convened by local "Welcoming Committees" and held in partnership with Rotary clubs, church groups and civic organizations, all in an effort to forge stronger, more integrated communities.
Watch a clip of Welcoming America's PSA in North Carolina:
Listen to one of the organization's radio ads here:
Though this effort remains distinctly grassroots, Welcoming America now counts blue chip philanthropist George Soros as one of its biggest supporters -- his Open Society Institute granted $150,000 to the organization in December of 2010.
Raquiba LaBrie, the program director for OSI's Equality and Opportunity Fund, says of Welcoming America, "We thought this was a powerful model for reducing anxiety and undermining prejudice about immigrants and refugees through old school methods," specifically, person to person contact.
OSI is not the only organization noticing Welcoming America's efforts. Two weeks ago, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, established in part by venture capital guru William Draper, awarded a $300,000 "entrepreneur" grant to the organization's executive director, David Lubell. And, on May 24, PBS will nationally broadcast a documentary about the program called "Welcome to Shelbyville."
Anne Marie Burgoyne, the portfolio director for Draper Richards Kaplan, believes Welcoming America is implementing a model that could change the way immigration is discussed on a national level. "We make general operation grants to innovative organizations to help take them to scale," she says. "We only fund things we think will have a high impact."
According to Lubell, what sets his project apart from other immigration-focused initiatives is its focus on resident populations, rather than just immigrant communities -- which tend to be the traditional focus of outreach efforts, including English language programs and jobs training. "A lot of groups are trying to water the seed, and not the soil surrounding it," says Lubell. "We're trying to water the soil. Nothing's going to grow just by watering one alone."
Suzette Brooks-Masters, who oversees immigration-related grantmaking at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, which put $90,000 towards Welcoming America activities in 2010, explains, "What I really liked about Welcoming America was that it was addressing a problem that a lot of philanthropists and a lot of advocacy groups had not tackled. Namely, how you talk to mainstream America" about immigration?
She adds, "A lot of energy has been put into the immigrant rights movement, creating infrastructure for that movement, building power -- which is all incredibly legitimate -- but the problem is it that it doesn't actually address how to talk to native Americans."
According to Lubell, one of the reasons his group is able to reach these resident populations is because Welcoming America events and communication efforts avoid any discussion of immigration reform or politics. "We don't advocate for policy,"he says. "We're a community building organization."
By avoiding the specifics of reform -- and instead focusing on the social and cultural fears surrounding immigration and changing communities -- Lubell says he is able to speak to what Brooks-Masters calls "the 60 percent in the middle."
According to Lubell, "Our main goal is to reach those people who are unsure whether immigration growth is a positive thing or not. And some of them are very reasonable -- they're just not getting accurate information about immigration."
So far, it remains difficult to assess how effective the organization's efforts have been -- especially as communities across the country continue to push forward with divisive legislation, including controversial English-only laws.
While Lubell is making a concerted effort to analyze his organization's efficacy (Welcoming America is set to begin pre- and post-event surveys for certain participants later this year) the relatively small scale of the efforts thus far and the inherently intangible nature of assessing public opinion -- as opposed to, say, measuring poverty rates or test scores -- makes such analysis difficult.
In 2010, for example, Lubell estimates that Welcoming America has targeted 8,611,247 individuals in the communities where initiatives (including communications and public events) have taken place. Of this group, the organization estimates it reached 736,185 immigrants - or 10% of the total audience.
Both Lubell and his foundational supporters say person-to person contact is creating more resilient communities. "The events," Lubell says, "are the most transformative." And while the organization contends that community dialogues and presentations are the best opportunity to change perceptions about immigration and fuel a strong "ripple effect", others question whether attendees of the local mixers aren't already inclined to have a favorable, or at least a considerably more progressive, view of immigrants.
Suzanne Donato, a professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where Welcoming America has launched several initiatives, says that those "conversations can overwhelmingly feature an audience that feels the same way." In Donato's mind, Welcoming America is most successful in reaching that elusive 60% via its media and communications efforts.
"Those billboards were very dramatic," she says, referring to signs that were erected in Tennessee in 2006. "They certainly got peoples' attention -- everyone who drove down Interstate 40. Many different kinds of people saw them. And then there were letters to the editor [that followed]: ones that were pro-immigrant, some were anti, some were in the middle. But the billboards initiated conversations."
Donato also underscores the effectiveness of Welcoming America's targeted outreach programs: "They send people out to have conversations with people who, in the local paper or in the news, have said things that might have been considered unwelcoming to immigrants. Or that suggested the person saying them was smart, but may not have understood the full immigration story."
These outreach efforts, Donato contends, reach local officials: county commissioners, district attorneys and some law enforcement members -- providing a considerable ripple effect in small towns and cities.
Another issue complicating Welcoming America's mission is the fact that many of its local organizers are also independently involved in immigration advocacy efforts. Darcy Tromanhauser, a Nebraska coordinator for the Welcoming America activities, is also the director of the Immigrant Integration & Civic Participation Program at the advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed. Speaking to this potential conflict, Tromanhauser says, "I think those sorts of dividing lines happen all the time. For example, at a non-profit we can't do any partisan political activities. People are used to that in this space."
Convincing resident populations that Welcoming America is not part of any pro-immigration advocacy or policy efforts can be tricky even when the local representatives are completely independent. Kristin Collins, who runs Uniting North Carolina, Welcoming America's local affiliate in the state, notes that, "We're the only organization that operates as an independent non-profit, not affiliated with any advocacy groups. But our message is pro-immigrant -- so people tend to think, 'Oh they're just another one of those immigration advocacy groups.' We're really trying to show people that we're different. We're working hard to go to places where there's a mixed crowd with various beliefs and political positions."
Welcoming America organizers insist that they are trying to reach these disparate voices, but the organization has yet to make inroads in some of the battleground states where the immigration debate is at its fiercest, including Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.
Of Arizona, Lubell says: "It's a place that we'll get to, but our organizations are still getting their feet wet and learning how this all works." Going to the state now, he contends, would be akin to "going straight to a senior high school AP class while you're still in junior high."
And while critics are certain to measure Welcoming America's work against the strength of conservative efforts -- the passage of laws requiring immigration status checks, or continued debate over the 14th Amendment, for example -- combatting the hardliners isn't really part of the organization's mission. "Some people are never going to be persuaded that this country needs to have fair immigration policies," says Raquiba LaBrie of OSI. "And I don't suggest they waste time trying to."
Some foundational supporters may have their own internally articulated goals inextricably tied to broader immigration policy reform, but Lubell remains defiant in his belief that reaching the moderate center and building stronger communities is the focus of his efforts. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, it's undeniable that Welcoming America exists as a haven from the otherwise heated rhetoric emanating from both sides of the aisle.
In explaining why he does what he does, Lubell recalls a personal anecdote: "I switched high schools when I was younger, and there were those students who were really welcoming to me, who gave me a good orientation -- and as a result I really succeeded in that school. I became head of the community service program, which got me headed in the direction I'm in today. It's similar with immigrants and the people who want to make communities stronger. When you feel more welcome, you succeed."