Next step beginning for Champaign as it seeks to be a Certified Welcoming city

Feb. 7—CHAMPAIGN — Just how welcoming a community is Champaign to immigrants?

Auditors from the nonprofit organization Welcoming America will be in town this week as the next step in Champaign's application to be designated a Certified Welcoming city.

The New American Welcome Center at the University YMCA is facilitating the Certified Welcoming evaluation visit after the city applied for and was chosen to be one of three cities from across the country to participate in a pilot project, according to city spokesman Jeff Hamilton.

According to a September memo to the city council from the city's Equity and Engagement department, Certified Welcoming is a formal designation given to cities and counties that have created policies and programs reflecting commitment to immigrant inclusion in all areas of civic, social and economic life.

Champaign was chosen to be among three communities to pilot a new tiered certification system for Welcoming America.

"Being certified gets you visibility across the country," said Ricardo Diaz, chair of the New American Welcome Center.

He hopes to see Champaign attain the highest tier of Certified Welcoming designation, he said.

Evaluators from Decatur, Ga.-based Welcoming America will be in the community Tuesday through Thursday, Diaz said.

Welcoming America established its Certified Welcoming program in 2017, and communities meeting the standard gain a competitive advantage to help attract and retain a global workforce and businesses with values that align with welcoming and inclusion, the organization says on its website.

As of last year, there were 17 cities and counties across the U.S. that had attained the Certified Welcoming certification.

Mayor Deb Feinen said her own visit with the auditing team will be later this week.

City officials learned about the opportunity to apply to become a pilot city last year when staff members from the city and New American Welcome Center attended the Welcoming Interactive Conference in Charlotte, N.C., according to the mayor.

"Being set up to make sure that people coming to our community are successful and happy and that we are culturally responsive is all really important and part of who we are as a community," she said.

Extending a community welcome to immigrants has been very much a broader countywide effort, Feinen said, but this particular certification process goes only to individual communities.

"We appreciate our community partners. We absolutely want them to be certified as well," she said.

Feinen said it's important to be on the forefront of being welcoming and inclusive, especially given that immigrants represent about 12 percent of Champaign County's population.

"I think it's a great opportunity," she said. "Not only does it highlight the work everyone is doing here, it also identifies the areas where we need to improve."