The Value of Being Welcoming in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

The Value of Being Welcoming in Lancaster, Pennsylvania 

By: Dylan O’Neil

Lancaster, Pennsylvania has been a safe haven for those seeking refuge for as long as it has existed. Now, in the face of climate change and climate-induced migration, ​Lancaster​ can and should be a beacon of hope for those seeking safety, and a source of inspiration for individuals and communities looking​ to​ follow suit. Lancaster, dubbed by the BBC in 2017 as America’s Refugee Capital, has a deep-seated understanding of what it means to be welcoming, beginning with the Amish and Mennonite communities fleeing persecution in the 18th century. Today, being welcoming includes embracing those fleeing climate change and climate-induced disasters.  

Lancaster has already been a place of refuge and hope for those fleeing climate disasters, such as during Hurricane Maria in 2017, when families from Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean sought welcoming arms​​​​. One of the strengths Lancaster has to offer to immigrants is its experience ​​resettling a significant number of refugees, almost 5,000 between 2002 and 2019. This resettlement has been guided not only by ​​​the ​welcoming nature​ of ​the community, but also by the work of organizations like Church World Services (CWS) who empower ​their ​​​​​newest neighbors to build new lives in peace and security. Over the years, CWS has gained significant experience, which, in partnership with local churches, can be translated to empowering ​​those who move in response to climate change and climate disasters.  

It is important to recognize that for many, climate change is scary and talk about and climate migration is even scarier. ​​​​​Narratives around climate and migration often go something like this​, “In the most extreme climate scenarios, more than 30 million migrants would head toward the U.S. border over the course of the next 30 years.” The reality is, we don’t know how many people will migrate due to climate change. Estimates of the number of people who could become environmental or climate migrants are guesswork at best. Many will not be able to move due to financial reasons, familial responsibilities, and other constraints. The drivers of migration are complex, and migration is not necessarily one-way or permanent.  

Lancaster can also play a key role in welcoming Americans fleeing the effects of climate change and climate disasters. ​​Lancaster is a relatively short drive to safety for several major cities along the Eastern seaboard that are facing sea level rise and the increasing possibility of major devastating storms, cities such as Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. We only have to look back a couple of years at the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, which caused $19 billion in damage in New York City alone, to see the destruction that can occur along the East Coast. Lancaster’s proximity to major population centers that will likely be affected by climate change, and its history of being a welcoming community makes it ideal for those who need a safe place to wait out the storm. Lancaster is not unaffected by climate change, but it is a safer option than ​​places along the coast.  

Lancaster has benefited greatly over the years from being a welcoming community. The immigrant and refugee population in ​the city ​​​have established ​​​new businesses​ and increased the​​​ workforce, contributing $1.3 billion to the economy. Refugee entrepreneurs in Lancaster have piloted new and innovative programs such as Bridge, a platform created by Mustafa Nuur that allows individuals to sign up for dinners hosted by refugee families in order to foster connections between the diverse groups of people that now call ​this city​​​ home. As Lancaster welcomes and integrates climate migrants, the economic benefits and entrepreneurial spirit will multiply, continuing the growth of this small, but mighty city.  

I believe that with the lessons learned from the successful resettlement of refugees, the integration of those displaced by climate change is not only possible, but desirable. The success Lancaster has had in creating a welcoming community has been noticed, and the city has been honored with Certified Welcoming Status from Welcoming America. This status is given to towns and cities that have demonstrated a commitment to being inclusive; Lancaster was the first in Pennsylvania to receive it. This reputation of being welcoming will continue to grow, ideally inspiring and motivating other communities and individuals. Climate change and climate-induced migration, both at home and abroad, are realities that we all need to face, and I am confident that Lancaster will do so with open arms, challenging the negative narratives that are all too prevalent. As former Lancaster Mayor Richard Gray said, “Lancaster for one intends to maintain its place in American history by preparing itself for climate change, welcoming those in need, and providing opportunities for them to thrive.” 


Dylan O’Neil is a second-year MALD student studying human security and global governance. He is passionate about migration, in particular migration policy. His current research focuses on migration externalization policies and migration diplomacy. Prior to Fletcher, he worked for several years as an immigration paralegal at Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP in Boston.

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