Orange County

Chapel Hill, Siler City to build stronger ties with immigrants

A UNC initiative aims to build stronger communities by helping immigrants and refugees feel more at home in Chapel Hill and Siler City.

The towns were chosen last week for the competitive Building Integrated Communities (BIC) initiative – – sponsored by UNC’s Latino Migration Project.

The initiative encourages refugees and immigrants to get involved in local government and their communities by connecting residents with needed resources, and promoting cross-cultural understanding.

The Latino Migration Project established the initiative in 2010 with a $117,396 grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. Previously chosen communities include Greenville, High Point, Sanford and Winston-Salem, all of which developed action plans, new resident advisory boards and other services through the project.

Chapel Hill and Siler City town staffs will begin working with BIC staff this spring. The project does not provide financial support.

Chapel Hill officials noted between 50 and 80 refugees have moved to Orange County in each of the last seven years. Most are from Burma (Myanmar), although the number from the Democratic Republic of the Congo has increased, they said.

U.S. Census data shows Chapel Hill had 6,085 immigrants and refugees in 2015, up 10 percent from 2010. Nearly 14 percent were Asian-born.

Siler City, on the other hand, had a large number of Hispanics – 45.5 percent of the town’s 8,193 residents in 2015, Census data shows. That number reflected fewer Hispanic residents and a smaller share of the town’s population than in 2010, when Hispanics were 54.2 percent of the population.

Immigrant debate

The announcement comes as the status of immigrants and refugees – and so-called “sanctuary cities” – are being debated at the state and national levels. While some conservative groups have identified Chapel Hill and Siler City as “sanctuary cities,” neither town’s policies violate state or federal laws.

The BIC initiative also “does not endorse or oppose any state or federal policies,” said Hannah Gill, director of UNC’s Latino Migration Project.

“The BIC initiative works with local governments to improve local relationships and economic development for all of their residents,” she said. “BIC partnerships do not in any way indicate local lawmakers’ relationships to statewide or national immigration policy.”

The city of Winston-Salem, for instance, worked with BIC staff over the last two years on programs that help immigrants get information in their native languages and connect with local agencies working on issues, such as fair and affordable housing, education, health care and transportation.

Winston-Salem also sought to increase the role of immigrants and refugees in the larger community by addressing public misconceptions, stereotypes and fear, particularly about Hispanic immigrants.

2020 plan

Chapel Hill Town Manager Roger Stancil said the BIC project aligns closely with Chapel Hill’s 2020 plan for the future and focus on collaboration and innovation.

The town will provide more information soon about how the community can get involved, he said. Sarah Vinas, the town’s assistant director of housing and community, noted that will start with an in-depth study of local needs.

“That’s one of the things that we’re most excited about, because a lot of the data that we have readily available from the Census and other national data sources don’t necessarily give us a good sense of immigrants and refugees that may come in and out of the community, particularly the refugee population,” Vinas said.

Immediate changes could include providing information in multiple languages and an interpreter at town meetings, she said.

Success will be measured by how the initiative benefits all residents, Gill said.

“BIC will collaborate with Chapel Hill partners to create an evaluation plan that measures progress on the implementation of specific strategies by the town of Chapel Hill once they are created,” Gill said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb