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In April 2015, an initiative of the Obama Administration marked a historic moment in immigration work. For what is generally viewed as a first time, the federal government released a report on immigrant integration: The White House Task Force on New Americans: Strengthening Communities by Welcoming All Residents: A Federal Strategic Action Plan on Immigrant & Refugee Integration.
After receiving recommendations from 350 organizations and individuals, the White House Task Force produced a 70-page document with hundreds of recommendations. Four essential pillars focus the broad content:
The report is both understandably and unfortunately focused on local communities. We affirm the essential observation that all integration is local. The report builds on the sociologist's language: immigrant integration is a "dynamic two-way process" in which both the immigrant and the residents of a receiving community engage "to foster greater understanding, promote inclusiveness, speed economic success, and build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities." The opportunities to advance this agenda are boundless and offer a role for virtually every level of government and every type of agency in the community – including the federal government.
Where is the federal agenda? What stimulus will there be in the Department of Education to address the primacy of learning English by offering courses for all and fostering the best practices for English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)? What priority will be set in the Department of Labor to open the labor market to the most talented and most eager workers who are currently facing work barriers to equal and appropriate employment? What action will flow from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to foster greater accessibility for gaining citizenship and for the reunification of families currently divided by the administrative hindrances of the immigration system? How will the Department of Justice take current policing concerns and work on equal protection of ethnic and linguistic minorities? These and many other questions will now need attention as the report becomes the basis of another White House summit and a determination of both priorities and deliverable federal action.
The report has met with varied reactions. Paul Stein, former state coordinator of refugee resettlement of Colorado said, "This is a good toolbox by the federal government for local implantation." A strategic assessment was offered by one of the report's prime instigators, Eva Millona of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Coalition (MIRA) and National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA): "We recommend to the White House to prioritize those policies with the highest and most immediate possible impact, one under each of the four strategic areas, as well as a framework to implement that policy. In the area of Strengthening Existing Pathways to Naturalization and Promoting Civic Engagement, for example, we would recommend focusing on completion of the fee study (i.e. the cost of naturalization). Under Expanding Opportunities for Linguistic Integration and Education, the greatest immediate impact could come from strengthening technical support to states and school districts on best practice ESOL and Adult Education model, including guidance on leveraging funding available through existing state or federal funding streams. Finally, under Supporting Skill Development, Fostering Entrepreneurship and Small Business Growth, and Protecting New American Workers, the Task Force and participating federal agencies can leverage ongoing Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) implementation efforts in states nationwide to strengthen partnerships and technical assistance that will strengthen the economic integration of New Americans through the workforce system."
The focus on the American workforce is a natural priority while the U.S. enjoys a strong economy and relatively high employment levels. Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the National Skills Coalition wrote, "It was gratifying to see that the Task Force made a clear connection between immigrant integration activities and workforce issues, particularly the implementation of the WIOA. Immigrant-serving organizations should act now to be part of their state's WIOA planning process, and should consider submitting public comments on the proposed federal WIOA regulations. In addition, it is important to be on the lookout for upcoming federal policy guidance on career pathways and credentials, which can help immigrant workers to improve their employment prospects. Finally, WIOA's new emphasis on Integrated Education and Training models such as I-BEST provides a key opportunity for adult education programs to more tightly connect their classroom activities to employment."
Migration Policy Institute's Margie McHugh, notes that the breadth of the report could make us "worse off rather than better off." In her initial assessment she focused on the issue of language learning as the core and that in a time of the WIOA, the varied needs of language learning could be lost in the focus on transition programs to the workforce from secondary education. McHugh affirmed the report as needed and one keeping America competitive with Europe that has long been developing a "brain circuity…to track how immigrant integration is progressing." She notes the need for the broad horizontal look of this report and the breadth of participants but called for a vertical follow up. McHugh also notes that "we see this as a beginning and not an end point. We need a vertical coordination for state and local government to make this real, making how to solve problems real." On language leaning she pressed the point that "we have been limping along for so many years. There is a huge gap and we haven't figured out how to improve the number of programs or organized our thinking about what programs to run."
The Obama White House historic initiative is ground breaking. The conversation reaching across the federal government is vital and we support that it must now find the vertical integration with local government and the implementation partners with non-profit organizations in this arena. Having Welcoming Communities is an easy affirmation but this compilation of policy recommendations now requires work. Applied research that identifies effective integration patterns and numerates the obstacles is essential. The IIL will contribute more from comparative study with the release of the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX IV) a study detailing 148 policy indicators and how rights, responsibilities and opportunities impact the achievement of full immigrant integration.
Immigrant integration has attained a new level of engagement but a plan is yet to emerge.