While many public officials are trying to restrict illegal immigrants, Israel "Izzy" Colon, Philadelphia's director of multicultural affairs, is doing something different: He's welcoming them, no questions about papers asked. It's all part of Mayor Michael Nutter's effort to revitalize Philadelphia by making it a 21st century immigrant hub.
Colon, age 60, moved to Philadelphia in 1976. However, his roots go back to the island of Puerto Rico and New York's Lower East Side, where Colon grew up in a tenement with no heat and a bathtub in the kitchen. After graduating from the State University of New York, Binghamton, Colon worked as a community organizer for Aspira, a nonprofit focused on Latino youth.
In 1988, he went to work for Councilman Angel Ortiz and his then-Chief of Staff Nutter. When elected mayor in 2007, Nutter tapped Colon to reach out to the city's fast-growing immigrant community and charged Colon with making Philadelphia a more immigrant-friendly city by aggressively pushing city services--and city jobs--into immigrant communities. That hasn't always been popular, but Colon says Philly has no choice.
"These people aren't going away," he says. And Colon doesn't want them to. On the contrary, he and Nutter are counting on them to help build the city.
Philadelphia Immigrant Facts:
Latino population, 2009: 165,000
Percentage of Latino immigrants who are Puerto Rican: 70 percent
Fast-growing immigrant groups: Mexican, Vietnamese and Russian
Source: Office of Multicultural Affairs