Solas 2023 Honorees: Anuj Gupta

When Anuj Gupta first started attending board meetings for The Welcoming Center, he was just a graduate student. He was there because the organization’s founder Anne O’Callaghan saw that he had something to offer: a passionate and research-driven perspective on the value of immigrants to the City of Philadelphia.

Gupta made himself an expert on these issues, working under the umbrella of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia on a 2000 report titled “Immigration in Philadelphia: A Call to Action.” He was responding to the fact that in the ’90s, the city lost over five percent of its population.

“This was during a time period when people started to think differently about Philadelphia,” recalls Gupta. “It was the Rendell years in City Hall. There was a lot of energy in the city, and people started to feel better about its prospects and its future, but we were still bleeding residents in a very significant way.”

Gupta had lived in Boston and New York, and noticed something different happening in those places.

“It was very clear to me that if you walked the streets of those cities or really any other big city in America during the 1990s, what you were seeing was a sense of urban revitalization — and it was disproportionately driven by a wave of immigration of a magnitude we hadn’t seen in a long time,” he says. “Cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, that had seen some measure of depopulation over the preceding decades, began to grow again.”

During the 1999 mayoral race, Gupta was dismayed by the fact that the candidates all ignored the issue of immigration. He felt like they were missing a key ingredient of urban vitality. Working as an intern at the Economy League while pursuing his graduate degree, he approached the director, David Thornburgh, with an idea.

“I said, ‘Look I’m really bothered by the fact that on the heels of the last mayor’s race, no one brought up immigration,’” he recalls. “‘The city is remarkably non-diverse. It’s essentially a black and white city. We have a trickle of immigration coming in, which is not representative of our status at that time as the fourth-largest city in America. And I want to try and understand how we went from being a city built by immigrants to effectively falling off the map as an immigrant destination point. And I want to use that as a clarion call for policymakers to take action.’”

He got the green light and wrote the report. Gupta felt momentum around the issue, but then 9/11 happened and the conversation became politically toxic. At that same moment, Anne O’Callaghan was working to push the same boulder up the hill, planting the seeds for what would become The Welcoming Center.

Gupta and O’Callaghan met and it was serendipity. They shared a grand goal: make the Philadelphia region a better place for new immigrants, boosting the region’s economy. He had the data and the policy arguments. She had the boots on the ground. Despite the fact that Gupta was still a student, O’Callaghan offered him a seat at the table as the organization took shape.

Gupta eventually left Philadelphia for Baltimore but returned in 2008 to take a job in the Nutter administration. He formally joined the board of The Welcoming Center in 2009 and served until 2021, including time as chair. He saw clearly the essential role the organization was poised to play and spent over a decade plugging the holes created by a city government unable or unwilling to build a robust infrastructure to support local immigrants.

“[Philadelphia] has a history of some really strong, impactful nonprofit organizations serving immigrant communities, like HIAS Pennsylvania and the Nationalities Service Center,” he explains. “What we didn’t have was an organization that works on the integration side once they’re here, helping them build their economic mobility, helping them build their skill sets, helping them feel welcome, frankly. And The Welcoming Center started to fill that giant void.”

“We have made a tremendous amount of progress both in and out of city government and with the net population gains that we have seen over the last 15 years,” he adds. “I think the narrative tends to gravitate towards millennials and empty nesters, and those are certainly positive trends for the city. But the truth is, our population gain and the revitalization of commercial corridors and neighborhoods and residential areas, that has all been done through immigration.”

That argument speaks to the economic imperative of immigration, but Gupta doesn’t disregard the moral imperative.

“We are a nation that, unless you are from indigenous heritage, you are an immigrant here,” he says. “Many by involuntary means, but everybody can trace their lineage to another part of the world. If we fail to continue that pattern, I think America fails.”

“I’m the son of two immigrants,” he continues. “I’ve had a front row seat to what newcomers to this country can do when they’re given a chance. My parents came here to get their education. They stayed here. They raised their kids here. They put their kids through college here. They built their business here. They now employ 30 to 40 people whose livelihoods depend on them. I didn’t need the research to understand what the impact of immigration can be in our city, our communities, and our nation.”

Celebrate Anuj Gupta and the other honorees at Solas 2023 on Monday, April 24th at World Cafe Live. The Welcoming Center is celebrating 20 years of supporting new Philadelphians, and these people helped make it possible. Grab your tickets today!

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