As the audience at this week’s One Book One Northwestern talk simultaneously shouted their places of birth, filling Harris Hall with a chorus of countries and cities, guest speaker Adolfo Hernandez chuckled at the results of his experiment.
Upon realizing its collective diversity, the crowd laughed as Hernandez joked, “So we’re all from the same place.”
Hernandez, the first director of Chicago’s Office for New Americans, spoke to nearly 70 people Tuesday about the task mayor Rahm Emanuel assigned him: to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world.
Collaboration with educational institutions like Northwestern is one of the various ways through which the office plans to enhance the city’s relationship with its immigrant population – which includes immigrants from 140 different countries.
“We want to make sure we are assisting [immigrants] at every level, and that’s one of the things the private institutions can do well and already do well,” Hernandez said.
He said that the Office for New Americans wants to encourage universities like Northwestern to continue attracting international students for the “huge economic impact on the institution and the city itself.” Hernandez also wants to help “facilitate conversations between private institutions and potential places of employment” to help immigrant students find jobs.
“Northwestern, right now, I think, is poised to have its students really care more than any students that I know of anywhere in the United States at any school in terms of civic engagement, global engagement [and] being out in the community,” said Medill professor Jack Doppelt, who introduced Hernandez.
Though less than two years old, the Office for New Americans has already led a number initiatives to help immigrants – not all of whom are undocumented, said Hernandez – successfully navigate the private sector. These include streamlining the business licensing process so that immigrants can start companies with more ease and providing information in different languages.
The Office’s current project is the Chicago New Americans Plan, which will propose 30 initiatives to support immigrant communities in Chicago. According to Hernandez, officials from New York, San Francisco and Houston are already lining up to get a “sneak peek” of the plan.
“This is exactly what the mayor wanted,” he said of the competition between cities. “We didn’t want a 'race to the bottom' situation where we have Alabama and Arizona trying to outdo each other in how immigrant-unfriendly they can be. We want a race to the top.”