When states and municipalities pass and implement anti-immigrant legislation, they are an example of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Arizona did this with S.B. 1070, Alabama did it with H.B 56, and Georgia did it with H.B. 87. Families, communities, and economies within those states suffered as a result. In these instances, such places are throwing a wrench in the works of immigrant integration processes. Ultimately, actions that are detrimental to immigrant integration are harmful not only to newcomers in a place, but also to the receiving community overall. But what exactly does immigrant integration involve at the local level, and how does local level integration relate to national immigration policy?
In my previous post for The Migrationist, I discussed ways in which cities are attracting and welcoming immigrants as part of community building and immigrant integration strategies, and reasons why cities choose such paths towards welcoming and inclusion. In that post, I described a recent definition of immigrant integration from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR). GCIR defines immigrant integration as “a dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.” With immigrant integration, there is an “emphasis on the two-way process of change by both immigrants and members of a receiving society.”
In this post, I further describe some of the thinking about the broader context within which immigrant integration occurs. Along with GCIR’s definition, Jimenez (2011) defines immigrant integration as “a process wherein immigrants and the communities in which they settle – both the individuals and institutions – mutually adapt to one another.” The reference to the two-way nature of integration is important to keep in mind when thinking about receptivity in a community. In terms of immigrant integration success, Jimenez notes that while some state and local governments choose a path toward enforcement-only and restrictive immigration policies, other places choose to develop immigrant integration policies geared towards welcoming newcomers. In many cases, such efforts are often public-private partnerships with local NGOs and other organizations that help implement integration policies. In the end, restrictive policies lead to high social and economic costs for an entire community, whereas encouraging and facilitating immigrant integration benefits newcomers and the receiving community overall.
Jimenez suggests that, although integration is not always a smooth and easy process, recent immigrants are integrating reasonably well with U.S. society. In particular, immigrant integration involves what may often be uncomfortable adjustments for immigrants and their families as well as the receiving community. As in past waves of immigration where immigrants over time successfully weaved their way into the fabric of mainstream America, so too are recent immigrants integrating reasonably well along the lines of five main indicators, which Jimenez describes as: language proficiency, socioeconomic attainment, political participation, residential locale, and social interaction with host communities. Jimenez also notes that while there are significant challenges to successful integration, and while the integration of immigrants today may differ in style and substance from that of previous waves of immigrant settlement, the end result is still “strikingly similar to the successful integration observed among past immigrant inflows.”
Furthermore, Jimenez’s analysis of immigrant integration concludes by noting that the process has proceeded organically, almost entirely without the aid of policy interventions. He suggests “this laissez faire approach to immigrant integration has in the past relied primarily on a strong labor market and high-quality public education to provide opportunities for integration.” If this remains to be the case moving forward, strengthening public education in areas of considerable immigrant settlement will be a significant area of concern in coming years. The size of the United States’ undocumented population is also “likely to remain a powerful barrier to social cohesion and full social, economic, and political integration until steps are taken to address it.” This is one reason why a path to citizenship for the U.S. undocumented population as part of comprehensive immigration reform is not only important for individuals and their families, but for the entire receiving community in which they live. Indeed, a recent report summarizes the economic advantages a pathway to legalization and smoother structure for immigrant integration presents to cities.
Building upon Jimenez’s remarks, Niessen (2012) comments on national policy influences on local integration processes. Specifically, he states that “integration at the local level is made much more difficult when the residence status of immigrants is not secured, their labor market mobility is restricted, they cannot live with their families, they do not have equal access to education, they cannot participate in decision-making or acquire citizenship, and when they are not protected against discrimination” (Niessen 2012). He suggests that cities “have a big interest in the creation of favorable conditions in all of these areas” and may do well by working together so that their collective voices are heard at the national level where immigration policy is typically planned and implemented.
Clearly, the extent of a place’s welcoming climate and the ability for newcomers to effectively integrate into a community are linked to a place’s ability to be resilient to economic vacillations and other shocks. Indeed, Mollenkopf and Pastor (2013) state that “regional leaders who want their metropolitan areas to weather the country’s inevitable economic and demographic changes will likely need to weave immigrants into their regional narratives and visions for their regional futures, helping to calm the political waters by highlighting how immigrants and their children can be assets rather than problems.” In so doing, local leaders “will help facilitate a broad and much-needed recognition that a region’s resilience is based not on struggling with strangers, but rather on welcoming with the warmth that will help newcomers maximize their contributions to our country’s metropolitan future.”
The above concepts and components briefly describe why immigrant integration is important for new immigrant destinations and new gateways. Communities with warmer receptivity can create an efficient environment of immigrant integration, as well as a more positive experience for the receiving community. The Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at the University of Southern California found that “in regions where immigrant integration is fostered, immigrants perform better and the entire region also thrives.” Furthermore, the Center notes “the results are better economic outcomes for immigrants and the region.” Other organizations, including Cities of Migration, the Building Resilient Regions Network at the University of California, Welcoming America, OneAmerica, the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Council, the Migration Policy Institute, the National League of Cities, and NALEO, among others, have studied and written about the importance of immigrant integration for the country and for metropolitan regions, cities, and local communities. If leaders in places like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia were to put more effort into immigrant integration and inclusion, rather than actively attempting to exclude participants in their society and economy, they would see direct economic gains to their state and cities. Those places in turn would be on a path to greater regional resiliency.