Immigrants come to Philadelphia in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. Regardless of status, immigrants have helped revitalize our city.  They have boosted our population, added to the city's tax base, and grown commercial corridors.  A 2017 national study by the New American Economy showed that immigrants paid $6 billion in total taxes and held $13.5 billion in spending power in 2014.

The study also demonstrated that immigrant residents of Philadelphia are 43.1 percent more likely to start their own businesses. More than 40,000 immigrant entrepreneurs in Philadelphia's metro area have played a key role in neighborhood revitalization, economic development, and reversing a 50-year population decline.

However, immigrant entrepreneurs make up only half the picture. What about immigrants who do not own small businesses, who work in service industries, construction, factories, home health care, or domestic work?

Employees in these professions make up the bulk of our immigrant workforce. They are some of the most vulnerable, overlooked, and difficult to reach, making them virtually invisible in U.S. workplaces.

Why does this happen?  First, workplace culture and labor laws in the United States might be different from those in an immigrant's home country.  If they do not know English, immigrants might have trouble expressing what they think and how they feel at work. These factors make immigrants especially exposed to discrimination, harassment, or labor violations.

Second, immigrants have not always been considered active participants and contributors to the traditional labor movement.  The United States has a long history of viewing immigrants, especially people of color, as a threat to the typical working class.

When workers first began to organize unions in the 19th century, many labor leaders rallied around their common European heritage.  They defined themselves in contrast to enslaved Africans and non-white laborers brought in from Asia and Latin America. Instead of incorporating these immigrants into their campaigns, they expelled them from their ranks. When labor leaders claimed the right to strike and collectively bargain for workers, they limited those rights and protections to white workers.

But, throughout history, the battles for immigrant and labor rights have intertwined. In fact, many immigrants have fought to improve working conditions and have pushed the labor movement forward.  The legacy of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Philip Vera Cruz is one example. In the 1950s and 1960s, they organized Mexican and Filipino workers to challenge the low wages, long hours, health hazards, and racism they faced. Together, they formed the United Farm Workers and led a decade worth of strikes that helped raise standards for both immigrant and non-immigrant farm workers.

Recognizing this history, the City of Philadelphia Office of Immigrant Affairs will pilot a new program in May.  The Immigrant Workers Academy aims to foster more critical engagement between immigrant advocacy and labor. A community outreach project, the workers academy brings together advocacy groups, social service agencies, and labor unions to support immigrant workers and empower immigrants to engage in workplace matters. Because immigrants play an important role in our economy, we know that when we make the workplace safer for immigrants, we make the workplace safer for everyone.

The first Immigrant Workers Academy will be held Saturday at Africom in Southwest Philadelphia. We are working closely with the African/Caribbean communities to pilot the program, and will be providing interpretation and translated materials in French and Haitian Creole.

The Office of Immigrant Affairs would like to offer a series of these culturally competent and language-accessible trainings to other immigrant communities across the city.  If you'd like to work with our office to bring an Immigrant Workers Academy to your neighborhood, email Symbol Lai at

Symbol Lai is deputy director for the Office of Immigrant Affairs, City of Philadelphia.