Task force breaks new ground on immigrant integration

April 17, 2015

This week, the White House Task Force on New Americans released a first-of-its-kind report on integrating immigrants into American society. It breaks important new ground and furthers our national discussion on the issue. Its recommendations represent a step forward that must be built upon.

Crucially, the report recognizes that ensuring that immigrants are able to fully participate in the workforce is sound policy—not just for individual immigrants, but for their American-born neighbors, employers, and the communities in which they live.

Without immigrants, the U.S. workforce will not be sufficient to replace the workers expected to retire between 2010 and 2030. And as our economy has changed, so has the process of incorporating newcomers. Unlike in decades past, a hands-off approach that assumes immigrants will spend their working lives in jobs with little need for workforce training or English skills or is no longer true.

Today’s economy demands higher-order English and numeracy skills—even for workers at entry levels. Farther up the ladder, U.S. employers have an unmet need for qualified workers, particularly for middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school education but not a bachelor’s degree. Approximately 55 percent of today’s job openings are middle-skill, compared to just 44 percent of workers.

Because of these changes in the labor market, a new approach to absorbing newcomers is needed. The Task Force report marks a milestone in this new approach. The report’s focus on linguistic, civic, and economic integration recognizes that becoming American is a process—not just a destination.

And it is no small task. The U.S. today is home to 41 million immigrants. And while much of the public and congressional debate on immigration has focused on the 11 million individuals who are currently undocumented, the Task Force looked broadly at the full spectrum of newcomers. Drawing on the expertise of 20 federal agencies, and policy recommendations from 350 organizations and more than 1,000 members of the public, the Task Force identified more than a dozen areas for federal action.

They included:

  • Expanding employer partnerships through work-based learning approaches, such as Registered Apprenticeships, that can help qualified immigrants improve their career prospects.
  • Supporting states, localities, and workforce partners to develop and expand high-functioning career pathways and credentialing systems and programs.
  • Working with employers and other partners to improve access to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. As the report notes, demand is strong for this skill-building opportunity, and waiting lists are the norm in many communities.
  • Issuing guidance to federal workforce training providers, known as American Job Centers, to clarify immigrant eligibility for training programs and other services.

Perhaps most critically, the Task Force outlined how the federal government will tackle immigrant integration in the context of Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) implementation. Passed with overwhelming bipartisan majorities in Congress last year, WIOA provides federal support for adult basic education, high school equivalency, and English language classes, as well as workforce services.

But WIOA-funded services meet only a fraction of the need. Fully supporting the economic potential of immigrants will require thoughtful and coordinated action by leaders in the workforce development, adult education, and immigrant integration fields as well as employers. This collaboration should occur in the realm of federal and state policy, in the world of philanthropy, in advocacy, and in the delivery of direct services. The current WIOA implementation process and Task Force on New Americans report provide an ideal opportunity for leaders in all of these areas to ensure they are collaborating and making coordinated, effective investments.

Taking these steps will help ensure that our nation can foster the economic inclusion of all of its people, including native-born Americans as well as immigrants.  

Dann-Messier, Ed.D, is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.Salgado is president and CEO of the Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago.