Immigrant Integration Is American -- and Key to Reform

The inclusion of integration measures in the Senate's current version of the bill is essential to helping us prepare immigrants and the nation for a brighter and more productive future.
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In 2006, the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania passed one of the nation's most stringent anti-immigrant laws, barring unauthorized immigrants from obtaining services or renting property as well as declaring English the official language and requiring local employers to check immigration status. Today, the city is home to the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP) which brings together immigrant and native-born residents to both mingle personally and figure out together how to foster prosperity in this economically challenged city. Long gone are the anti-immigrant racial slurs spray painted in the city, and soon new billboards will be erected with pictures of Hazleton's culturally diverse residents and a simple message: "We are from Hazleton."

It's a heart-warming (albeit incomplete) transformation and a testimony to immigrant integration - in particular, the sort of two-way effort in which immigrants sink their own roots into new territory even as older residents open their minds to what places like Hazelton are and can be. And the city was fortunate to have a native son, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, who had acquired both Spanish and Latino friends through his life in baseball and was willing to put his own personal reputation, time and wealth on the line to build bridges between neighbors and fund a community center to unite city residents.

Unfortunately, these sorts of positive efforts are under attack by conservatives who oppose the provisions to promote immigrant integration that are included in the Senate's evolving immigration bill (S. 744) (Politico, June 10). Their objection is that the integration measures discussed in the bill involve concrete things like learning English, acquiring workforce training and gaining access to health care rather than the learning of "patriotic principles" and the development of "patriotic immigrants." They also object to the bill's suggestion that integration efforts should be supported by a new publicly-funded foundation rather than by just private non-profits.


For one thing, the whole "patriotic" trope is really just a way to suggest that the only path to integration is "assimilation," a process by which immigrants lose their native culture, languages and traditions in favor of American culture. In fact, culture is dynamic and changes over time; the American culture they want immigrants to assimilate to is shaped equally by our nation's immigrants.

Of course, some people really do think that the melting pot means all differences get melted away--and if this was truly a sincere stance by all those voicing it (as it is for some), it might be worthy of debate. The problem is that some of the same conservatives advocating that assimilation be the guiding light for the future have previously opposed the Dream Act--which nearly 70 percent of the voting public supports--and are calling the current Senate legislation an amnesty bill. Their attack on the immigrant integration provisions of S. 744 is really just another way to politically divide Americans and stall progress on reform.

Moreover, the bill is actually good on something conservatives should appreciate: avoiding the "mush" of vague assimilation measures and instead talking about immigrant integration as something that is both mutual and measurable. Indeed, our own discomfort at USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration with "soft" measures has led us to define immigrant integration as: improved economic mobility for, enhanced civic participation by, and receiving society openness to immigrants.

Using those metrics, we studied integration patterns across ten regions in California and found that in regions where immigrant integration is fostered, immigrants perform better and the entire region also thrives. Santa Clara County, for example, has an official Immigrant Relations and Integration Services program, a supportive community foundation and business community, and a range of programs that have helped immigrants and their children gain better access to health care; the results are better economic outcomes for immigrants and the region.

And it's not just California: the state of Illinois and cities like New Haven have also worked to create activities to promote immigrant integration. Meanwhile, in Maryland, we have seen collaborations between community groups, the government and the corporate sector, including an innovative effort to create micro-loans to assist immigrants in paying the high fees involved in the naturalization process.

So should federal funding be involved in supporting these efforts? Again, the opposition to spending would be understandable if there was some real principle involved, like the need to be fiscally tight in tough times. But conservatives are pressing hard to ramp up the $6.5 billion already allotted to improve border security, arguing that's just not enough to insure that no single immigrant can ever again cross illegally. Meanwhile, the objectionable allocation to promote the integration of immigrants who are already here: $100 million over five years.

It's an investment with high returns. Anyone who has looked at the economic data--including the Congressional Budget Office's new estimate that immigration reform will reduce the federal deficit by nearly a trillion dollars over twenty years--knows that a dollar invested in integration will produce economic gains that will outpace any parallel investments in border drones or steel fencing.

And anyone studying or working with immigrants knows that we really are dealing with "aspiring Americans," people whose hopes for themselves and their children are high, whose work ethic is strong, and whose desire to learn English is thwarted not by a lack of patriotism but by a lack of classes for adults. The inclusion of integration measures in the Senate's current version of the bill is essential to helping us prepare immigrants and the nation for a brighter and more productive future.

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