Look to Miami for its embrace of immigration
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 4, 2005

Miami is unlike any other city in the world.

Its pastel-colored skyscrapers face the Atlantic Ocean with chests out and chins high as if to say: "Look at us, this is who we are and we're proud of it."

And they would also say it Spanish - complete with the Caribbean lisp.

Miami, F-L-A, is Hispanic central for the United States and maybe the world. While Phoenix is confounded with its waves of immigration and struggles to accommodate, Miami welcomes, grows and prospers.

To be sure Phoenix is growing and becoming rich off the back of immigration, too, but leaders here would never admit it. Miami knows its role. Miami came to terms with it long ago. And if Phoenix leaders had any smarts they would look to Miami to see how it has absorbed wave after wave of immigrants and still kept its wits, embraced them and flourished.

There are some very distinct differences between Miami and Phoenix, but there are also plenty of parallels to draw from.

Miami-Dade, a city-county with an estimated population of about 2.5 million, is 60 percent Hispanic. Unlike Phoenix, where most all Hispanic residents are of Mexican decent, Miami's Latino residents are a diverse group that come from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua and now Mexico. In fact, Mexicans are the fastest-growing aspect of the Hispanic population in South Florida.

A huge building boom is drawing Mexicans to construction and hospitality jobs all around the Miami region. That's the same reason they're coming here. But in acknowledging its geographic location as the nearest U.S. big city to Central and South America, Miami has positioned itself for the now and future.

For example, over the years it has become the busiest center for Spanish language television outside of Mexico City drawing thousands of entertainers and industry leaders to the city. Its airport is a hub for two continents, it is a worldwide tourist mecca and it has become the place to go for the creative and professional of Central and South America.

And over the years, beginning with the Cubans, Hispanics in Miami-Dade have moved up the ladder and now run the region's most powerful institutions such as banks, the media and governments. As an example of just how strong and widespread the Latino influence is, one of the city-county library branches carries only Spanish-language titles.

And most public signage is in three languages: English, Spanish and French.

Now Phoenix is no Miami, but when you're deep in the west or south sides, you can definitely have an out-of-Phoenix experience. And the Latino presence here is getting stronger as Phoenix's Latino population approaches 40 percent and the Valley's nears 30 percent.

Phoenix, because of its geographic location and the long shadows of Los Angeles, can't become a powerhouse like Miami. But we must figure out how to harness the kinetic energy that comes with a large immigrant community.

That's no easy task. Unlike Miami's wave, the vast majority of Phoenix's immigrants are not a professional, entrepreneurial group and because of regressive, antiquated school and state policies, they face a barrage of natural and intentional hurdles.

And even after decades of steady immigration, Valley leaders have done just about everything in their power to ignore and not understand this emerging community. I'm not suggesting we coddle undocumented immigrants or hand out amnesty, but only for us to dutifully find a way to harness what has become our fate and make it work - like Miami.

It wasn't all a piece of cake for that city, but Miami took time to understand what it was about to become and look where it is now.

Teclo Garcia is the editor of ĦExtra! and an assistant city editor at The Republic. Contact him at (602) 444-8281, or teclo.garcia@arizonarepublic.com.