Norwich City Council rejects 'Welcoming Communities' campaign

Norwich — The City Council on Monday rejected a request by Otis Library to become the first municipality in the state to join the White House "Building Welcoming Communities Campaign" that outlines a number of programs to foster improved services to immigrants.

The aldermen voted 4-3 against the resolution, with those against the measure citing uncertainty about the program and lack of details.

“Not Norwich, not now,” Republican Alderwoman Joanne Philbrick said. “We have our fair share, some would say above our fair share, of immigrants in our community.”

Thus far, 48 cities and counties — none in Connecticut — have joined the White House initiative launched on Sept. 17. The campaign fact sheet describes three tiers of participation, and Otis Library Executive Director Robert Farwell said Otis already offers most of the services described in all three tiers, including programs for immigrant residents, promoting English learning, outreach to immigrant groups within the community and encouraging immigrant participation in the community.

Philbrick, a frequent critic of city government prior to being elected to the council in November, admitted this was a difficult issue to address. Philbrick and other aldermen applauded Farwell for bringing the proposal to the council. But she was concerned that the measure could bring more immigrants to the city, increasing the "physical burden" on local services.

Republican Alderwoman Stacy Gould cited a reference in the White House documents describing the program that referred to assistance for communities that resettle refugees.

Gould, Philbrick and fellow Republicans Peter Nystrom and Gerald Martin voted against the proposal. Martin said with only 48 communities nationwide having joined the program thus far, Norwich should take a “wait and see” approach to see how other communities make out with the program.

Nystrom questioned whether unspecified future funding would come with conditions to the city.

Democratic Mayor Deberey Hinchey, who sponsored the resolution on Monday's council agenda, Democrat H. Tucker Braddock and Republican William Nash voted in favor of the resolution.

Hinchey said she was “proud” to support the resolution, saying immigrants have come to Norwich and brought businesses to the city.

“This is not about bringing in refugees and camps and all the things I've heard people talk about,” Hinchey said. “This is about supporting our own community.”

After the meeting, Hinchey left the Council Chambers immediately and said, “I have no comment.”

During council discussion, Farwell also tried to counter public comments that the program would make Norwich a refugee settlement area. Farwell said the program supports initiatives Americans want for immigrants — English and citizenship classes and integration.

Tony Sheridan, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, spoke during public comment and said he came to congratulate Hinchey, the council and Otis Library for considering the initiative.

“I think it's very important, and Norwich is a leader in the state of Connecticut in welcoming immigrants,” Sheridan said.

Sheridan said most immigrants come to the United States to become Americans and to start businesses. He said about 500,000 of Connecticut's 3.6 million residents are immigrants, and 16 percent of all business owners are foreign-born.

After the vote, Farwell said he was disappointed but would continue to provide the services Norwich's immigrant residents use frequently at the library and would continue to welcome newcomers to the city.

"We will continue to offer services," Farwell said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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