TULSA, Oklahoma — The 10 newly minted U.S. citizens stood proudly at City Hall on National Constitution and Citizenship Day. Standing six feet part, some of these new citizens were accompanied by the single family member allowed into the live-streamed event, concessions to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Today is a wonderful day,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said during the September 17 ceremony. “It’s really important for us… that this be the best place it can be for you.”
Bynum, a Republican elected in 2016, means what he says. As mayor of the second-largest city in the deep red state of Oklahoma, he has shown a consistent commitment to inclusivity among immigrants and refugees, launching in 2017, the New Tulsans Initiative “to develop a multi-sector welcoming plan to remove barriers and assist Tulsa with immigrant integration.” It’s a commitment that’s now been expanded to meet the needs of this population during the coronavirus pandemic, offering services ranging from culturally aware targeted outreach efforts that help inform City Health Department protocol to financial navigation assistance.
Immigrants made up nearly 9% of Tulsa’s population in 2018, according to a July report from the New American Economy (NAE), a nonprofit, bipartisan immigration research and advocacy organization. (Tulsa is one of 12 cities nationwide NEA selected for a study examining pandemic responses and immigrant communities.) And according to U.S. Census data, immigrants made up over 27% of Tulsa’s population growth from 2010 to 2015. Increasingly important to the economic health of the city, they also make up its most vulnerable population
“One group that has continued to be overrepresented in COVID cases has been the Latino and Asian communities,” noted Krystal Reyes, Chief Resilience Officer for the City of Tulsa.
The NEA’s July report found that immigrants comprise more than 19% of all food sector workers and 6.9% of all healthcare workers in Tulsa County. Immigrants also make up 19% of business owners in general services, including personal services like laundry, barber, and repair shops, and 17.4% of business owners in the construction industry. In 2018, over 31% of immigrants living in Tulsa County had limited English language proficiency,
Immigrants “are both essential to Tulsa’s rapid response efforts and especially vulnerable due to gaps in our federal relief package, language access barriers, and increased risks of infection associated with frontline and essential work,” according to the report.
So the city got to work expanding the 2017 initiative. A key component: the targeted outreach efforts in its Latinx and Burmese communities, among others. (Tulsa has a large Burmese and Zomi population, some of whom are refugees.)
“We know just translating materials doesn’t necessarily equate with effective communication,” explained Leanne Stephens, spokesperson for the Tulsa Health Department. “We strive for two-way communication between our agency and our communities within Tulsa County.”
When the outreach group, for instance, discovered there was confusion about quarantine and isolation recommendations within the Latinx community about household members who test positive while others in the same household test negative, it relayed this back to the Health Department. The department was then able to provide messaging to the community about proper quarantine guidelines through a calendar in Spanish.
Also on offer is free financial assistance, enabling people who are struggling because of the pandemic to find financial resources. The service is available in Zomi, Spanish as well as English.
And with language being a barrier to good health, the city’s website now offers regular COVID updates in several languages including Spanish, Burmese and Zomi, and provides translations for COVID and general City of Tulsa information in more than 100 languages, Reyes said.
The private sector has also stepped up. A grassroots Share My Check campaign was developed to support immigrant and mixed-status families left out of federal stimulus payments. The campaign allowed those receiving federal stimulus checks to donate some of the money they received to support those without Social Security numbers, saying “immigration status should not determine whether or not an individual receives essential support during this unprecedented time.” And a local community college system along with the local YWCA offered full scholarships for online ESL classes by Zoom during the summer to immigrant and refugee students. The scholarships were available for ESL students regardless of immigration status.
Tulsa is among several urban outliers focused on inclusivity in a state that has one of the strictest anti-illegal immigration laws in the country. The 2007 Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act requires, among other things, proof of citizenship for certain government benefits. Contractors working for state entities must enroll in an online system to check an employee’s eligibility. It also makes it a felony to harbor, transport or keep an undocumented person in Oklahoma (Courts have struck down some parts of the controversial bill).
Despite the state’s anti-immigrant stance, Tulsa’s efforts to be inclusive within the immigrant and refugee populations are paying off: It jumped nearly 30 spots year-to-year in the recently released New American Economy Cities Index, which recognized progress in the U.S.’s 100 largest cities on immigration integration efforts. Additionally, the NAE recognized the City of Tulsa as one of this year’s “most improved cities overall” and “most improved in terms of policy.”
“When immigrants from around the world choose Tulsa as their new home, we want to live up to all the sacrifices they make to come here,” Bynum said in a statement when the index came out on September 17. “I’m thankful for our partnership with NAE as we seek to make Tulsa the best city it can be for our immigrant community, which is key to making our city a place of opportunity and growth for all.”
This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Kristi Eaton is a freelance journalist and Tulsa Artist Fellow based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Follow her on Twitter at @KristiEaton.