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'We Are Louisville' Aims To Help Immigrants, Refugees Feel At Home

Louisville skyline

Residents gathered at Zanzabar on Preston Street Wednesday night to help launch "We Are Louisville," a coalition aiming to demonstrate to newcomers that Louisville is a welcoming city.

The nonprofit, Define American, hosted the event. Define American was founded by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known for revealing his undocumented status in a 2011 essay published in The New York Times Magazine.

The event was held in partnership with Mayor Greg Fischer's office.

In December of 2016, Fischer announced his Global Louisville Action Plan, which aims to get immigrants to move to the area. Immigrants, Fischer said, are key to population growth, as well as filling jobs and making the city more entrepreneurial.

Louisville's foreign-born makes up nearly 7 percent of the city's population, according to Census data. That population is projected to grow to just more than 10 percent in 2025, according to the Global Louisville Action Plan.

Many in the city want Louisville to be known as welcoming and break away from national rhetoric that is often viewed as anti-immigrant.

"We are trying through efforts like 'We Are Louisville' to stand up and turn that tide and say 'this is not who we have to be as Americans,'" said Rev. Ryan Eller, executive director of Define American. "We are a compassionate community in Louisville. But we still have a long way to go and we're on that journey."

In January, following President Trump's executive order threatening to cut federal funding for so-called sanctuary cities, Fischer gave an impassioned speech in support of immigrants and refugees but did not go as far as publicly proclaiming Louisville a "sanctuary city." A federal judge blocked parts of the order in April.

Social justice group Mijente supports Louisville being labeled a sanctuary and is gathering signatures of residents who also support it. In February, the group, along with other organizations, delivered petitions to Metro Hall with the signatures of 2,600 Louisvillians who wanted the distinction.

Eller of Define American said "We Are Louisville" is made up of members, including faith leaders, nonprofits and social justice organizations who want Louisville to be a sanctuary — and some who don't.

"One of the things I love most about this 'We Are Louisville' coalition is that it's a coalition of people who are able to disagree with each other openly," Eller said.

Whether the city becomes sanctuary in name or not, Eller said it's important to fight the tone that's coming from Trump administration, which he said many believe is anti-immigrant.

"We're here to stand up and to say to be a Louisvillian is to be a welcomer," he said.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.