President Barack Obama’s proposed 2010 budget includes a $10 million allocation for a new Immigrant Integration Program in the Office of Citizenship at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, at the Department of Homeland Security. This fund will establish a program designed exclusively to help legal immigrants transition into their new communities. This is good news for immigration reform and echoes recommendations made by the Center for American Progress in a report earlier this year. But to show a true commitment to the issue the administration should go a step further and establish an office within the federal government specifically tasked with coordinating integration nationwide and focusing on all the challenges immigrants face.
The national conversation on immigration tends to be on the rules and laws regarding admissions (who can enter legally) and enforcement (what to do with those here illegally), but it rarely mentions the integration of those who are here and how to move them from newcomer to new American. In July of 2008 Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) tried to take up integration by introducing a bill in the 110th Congress that would have provided newcomers with tools to integrate into America’s social and economic fabric through English language education, civics instruction, incentives for businesses that invest in the education of their non-English speaking employees, and federal support for state and local plans to integrate new immigrants.
The bill was on the right track and even though it never emerged from committee prior to the end of the 110th Congress, the funding has finally arrived to advance these efforts.
We would do well to examine the attention the European Union has paid to integration as initiatives are being discussed at the federal level. In the last 40 years, many E.U. member states have experienced large waves of migration for the very first time. Brussels has taken notice and put integration of their immigrants at the top of their policy agenda items. The European Union established 11 guidelines known as “common basic principles” to aid member states in their development of integration policies and programs. European Union-wide initiatives such as the European Integration Forum, an E.U. integration website, and an Integration Fund will each support member states as they tackle this challenge. Brussels acknowledges that each community’s integration challenge is unique, and it therefore allows states total autonomy in program development while offering guidance and funding support.
The United States also experienced a large wave of immigration during the same time period. But most immigrants coming to America today are settling in cities and towns beyond the typical major metropolises, which absorbed much of previous immigration. The state of North Carolina, for example, experienced a 273.7-percent change in foreign-born population from 1990 and 2000, while California only saw a 37.2-percent increase during the same time period.
It is clear that states such as North Carolina would benefit from a well-structured support system at the federal level to help immigrants integrate—much in the same vein as the centralized support system the European Union has implemented. Cities and counties in the United States who are seeing an influx of immigrants for the very first time will enjoy stronger economic growth, among other benefits, if they adapt to shifting populations.
Representative Honda eloquently explained this at the introduction of his legislation in 2008, stating, “As a country of immigrants we have always depended upon newcomers to fuel our progress…legislation that provides them educational tools is logical and good for our country…Their success is America’s success, and we should invest in it through sound education policies such as this.”
Obama’s funding for the Immigrant Integration Program is in this spirit of welcoming immigrants and helping them succeed. It will be used to develop an online welcome program for immigrants, provide grants to community-based organizations for citizenship preparation programs, facilitate English language learning through improved web resources, build volunteer capacity by developing a training certification framework for volunteers as well as promoting volunteerism and partnerships, and promote citizenship with integration messages at the workplace, among federal agencies, and the general public.
This initiative will promote partnerships at national, state, and local levels, and will improve coordination between federal agencies. The Department of Homeland Security proposed many of these ideas in a report issued in December of 2008. But this new allocation of funds shows that federal lawmakers have recognized that integrating our new citizens is becoming an increasingly important priority for the whole country.
The new Immigrant Integration initiative resembles recommendations made in the recent Center for American Progress report, “Learning From Each Other: The Integration of Immigrant and Minority Groups in the United States and Europe.” Unfortunately, the initiative does not go far enough. Integration is a process that includes, but is not limited to, increased educational and economic mobility, social inclusion, and equal opportunity. Integration programs are already taking place all over the country, but they are ad hoc and lack support and guidance of any kind from the federal government.
We noted in that report that the Obama administration should send a stronger signal of its commitment to integrating new Americans by placing a National Office of Integration inside the White House. This office should be equipped to coordinate the challenges immigrants face through the relevant offices of the Departments of Justice, Labor, Homeland Security, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. And the focus of the office’s programs would be expanded beyond English language acquisition to the many other challenges that immigrants face. The office would make sure that the process of integration begins at the first points of contact, and it would provide resources to educators, employers, and government agencies to extend beyond those first points of contact, which are typically law enforcement agencies.
It is in the best interest of our government, society, culture, and economy to embrace the new demographic trends in the United States and the changes they bring. Success in this endeavor will require a serious commitment from immigrants, the host communities, and the local, state, and federal government. But we cannot dole out the responsibility to immigrants alone, for we all stand to gain from their progress here in the United States.