MADISON HEIGHTS — Brian Hartwell, the mayor of Madison Heights, believes that diversity is an asset for his community. He himself is descended from immigrants: His grandparents emigrated from Canada, originating from a French-speaking town in New Brunswick.
“From a poor fishing family who did not speak English, my family became American,” Hartwell said in an email. “When I meet immigrants from Iraq who were threatened by terrorists, or Vietnamese families who fled their homeland years ago, or young Chinese immigrants who received world-class education but had zero opportunity in China, I see my ancestors who moved here with the hope to build a business and raise a family in peace.
“We should feel inspired by the resilience of immigrants,” he said. “We should feel compelled to welcome immigrants and introduce them to the American way of life — freedom, safety, a nation of laws, diversity and inclusion.”
If the U.S. is a melting pot nation, then Madison Heights is a particularly flavorful blend. Beginning with the arrival of Polish, German and Canadian immigrants after World War II, the city went on to welcome Vietnamese and Indian immigrants during the 1970s, and Middle Eastern immigrants following the Gulf War. Many of them are Iraqi Christians and refugees fleeing war-torn lands to secure a better life for their families. This diversity is perhaps best reflected in the sheer number of ethnic businesses in Madison Heights, including more than 200 Asian-owned businesses.
“It’s truly the American dream,” Hartwell said. “Families move to Madison Heights to improve their lives, open their businesses, educate their children; and with our help, they assimilate into American culture.”
Madison Heights has always been open to immigrants, Hartwell said. But the mayor wants Madison Heights to reassert itself as a “Welcoming City” — one that will go the extra mile to make sure that immigrants feel included and are not discriminated against.
This could include passing a resolution to join the group Welcoming Michigan, a coalition of cities united in their support of immigrants. The organization has an annual fee of $50-$200 based on the size of a city’s budget. But Hartwell wanted to make something clear.
“First and foremost, Madison Heights is not — and will not become — a sanctuary city, one that refuses to cooperate with federal immigration officials,” Hartwell said. “But we’re at a crossroads. Madison Heights can continue its tradition of welcoming and integrating immigrants, or we can allow old stereotypes and fear to divide our city. In a welcoming community like Madison Heights, all people receive mutual respect and support to build businesses and raise their families. Whereas in an unwelcoming city, people become isolated, suffering disparate treatment.
“Our community should go on record that we welcome legal immigration,” Hartwell said. “From this core statement, we will then take specific action to integrate immigrants into our culture and institutions. I envision our council working with the city’s Multicultural Relations Advisory Board to convene a public forum to bring community leaders together to discuss how our diverse sectors can be included.”
Hartwell spent his first year as mayor reaching out to different groups: The Mexican consulate, the Association of Chinese Americans, the American-Islamic Cultural Center, Irish groups, Polish groups and more. His goal was to learn more about their needs.
“These relationships should grow from City Hall to the schools, to the faith community and beyond,” Hartwell said.
He said the primary barriers to inclusivity in Madison Heights are immigration status and the English language. On the first point, he recruited an immigration attorney last year to privately assist residents on their immigration status. More help is needed on this front, he said. On the second point, he said the city library has many English-language programs to assist immigrants in their transition to the U.S., but unfortunately, many immigrants are suspicious of government institutions, considering the war-torn countries they fled.
“It’s important that city government is aware of this apprehension by immigrants to get involved and to demonstrate our commitment to welcoming them to America just like our ancestors were welcomed,” Hartwell said.
“I am a politician who chooses not to make policy arguments by creating a false us-versus-them dynamic,” he continued. “I represent every person living within the 7 square miles of Madison Heights. And guess what? Seventeen percent of my constituents — one in every six residents, which is three times the state average — were born in a foreign country. It’s imperative that our city government makes an effort to include everyone.”
Madison Heights City Councilman Robert Corbett said he agrees with the mayor.
“I thought the mayor was exactly right on (proposing) the Welcoming City resolution,” Corbett said in an email. “You need only just look around our neighborhoods, parks and schools to see what a diverse community Madison Heights has become.
“I also don’t believe it’s an accident that some of the most vibrant, growing cities in Oakland County and southeast Michigan are those that emphasize social and ethnic diversity,” Corbett said. “Ferndale, Hazel Park and Royal Oak all have economically growing residential and commercial districts, all of which are sustained by wide and active ethnic communities. There isn’t any reason Madison Heights shouldn’t enjoy the economic and social benefits resulting from our openness to people of all backgrounds and cultures.”