While there has been growing momentum at the local level around place-based immigrant and refugee integration efforts in recent years, there hasn’t been an official coordinated effort for a federal immigrant integration strategy. That changed this week when the White House Task Force on New Americans—an interagency effort to develop a coordinated federal strategy to better integrate immigrants and refugees and build welcoming communities, which was created by Presidential memo as part of the President’s immigration accountability executive actions—announced its recommendations. These recommendations include 16 broad goals and 48 specific recommended actions to help build welcoming communities; strengthen existing pathways to naturalization and promote civic engagement; support skill development, foster entrepreneurship, and safeguard workers; and expand opportunities for linguistic integration and education. Many of the recommendations are based on innovative ideas submitted by individuals and organizations from around the country on a range of integration issues and actions.
The Task Force on New American’s recommendations report represents “a historic step toward creating the nation’s first federal integration strategy—one that recognizes the importance of local efforts to build welcoming environments where immigrants and long-time residents join together to create stronger communities,” Welcoming America said.
“We applaud the White House for recognizing that immigrant and refugee integration make our country stronger and that the federal government can and should do more to support the burgeoning movement of welcoming communities across the country. These efforts are at the cutting edge of helping our country remain economically competitive and culturally vibrant—the kind of place that people from around the world want to come to start a business, invest in communities, and make a better life for themselves and their families. This national policy is the first of its kind and affirms our nation’s leadership as a beacon of freedom and opportunity for all.”
And according to the Migration Policy Institute, the Task Force itself is a step toward creating the “brain circuitry” necessary for the federal government to understand and better address integration needs, challenges, and opportunities.
With the above in mind, there are several ideas to consider as the task force recommendations take root. First, the recommendations of the White House Task Force on New Americans are important in that they acknowledge the multi-scalar approach necessary for effective immigrant and refugee integration. Just as immigration transcends many issues areas at multiple scales, immigrant integration processes require a multi-level, multi-scalar, multi-faceted approach. But to be the most effective, integration efforts must be partnerships, not simply government-driven. Although an integration effort may be effectively housed within a municipal government (for example, see the Welcoming Cities and Counties program), which can act as a bridge-builder and connector among the various sectors of the community, there must be a community sense of ownership and the community must have a voice at the table to express what they want, what they need, in order to help drive the effort. City leaders, by offering public support, create safe, receptive spaces for conversation around and implementation of particular initiatives.
Regarding the role of higher levels of government, state and federal government must support, not hinder, such programs in cities and should provide resources and leverage that a city itself may not have. Cities and metropolitan areas are the economic and cultural drivers of state and regional economies and of the national economy and society. Therefore, state and federal support of good ideas from cities is important. States in which their largest cities are pursuing immigrant-friendly and welcoming city initiatives should support them and indicate that in their state-level policy-making. The same goes for the federal level. And the recommendations from the White House Task Force on New Americans are a step towards cultivating a coordinated federal effort around immigrant integration that will work in partnership with state and local level efforts. City-based efforts can then dive deeper into the issues of immigrant integration most important for their own communities. But to do that, there must be a multi-level, multi-scalar approach in which each level of support complements one another.
Second, while strengthening welcome and inclusion for immigrants and refugees is important, place-based efforts must not neglect their long-term populations—especially populations that have been or remain vulnerable, underserved, and/or marginalized. Everyone must have a seat at the table. One challenge for local immigrant-friendly or welcoming initiatives is to extend welcome to all—not just immigrants. If a place is working on welcoming and including their foreign-born populations, they should also be working to fully include members of other traditionally marginalized and/or vulnerable groups. Bridges must be built with the native-born population, particularly traditionally underserved populations. Initiatives should place emphasis on the fact that most of their programmatic goals will help the entire community, not solely immigrants and refugees. Intentional and thoughtful outreach and bridge-building among various constituencies of the native-born population are crucial. And within an economic development lens, for example, such as those in Rust Belt cities, initiatives must work to not only attract newcomer talent but also develop incumbent talent, as WE Global Network describes. Additionally, local municipalities must insist that the higher levels of government within which they are located, at the state and federal level, also work for more inclusive policy and legislation on many interrelated issues. When access, equity, inclusion, trust, and opportunity are increased for and among all people in a place, all community members will be better positioned to contribute directly and indirectly back to their communities, and places will become stronger.
Third, a diversity of interdisciplinary research finds that immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy and society at the national, state, metropolitan, and local levels. Research about immigrant settlement and its economic, social, cultural, political, and spatial impact at the local, regional, state, and federal levels can act as a crucial component in building or strengthening the foundation upon which an immigrant integration initiative rests. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), for example, described the importance of including a research and evaluation component in an integration initiative in their recommendations to the White House Task Force on New Americans. “New policies and practices will never be at their most effective without rigorous and systematic evaluation of the outcomes they produce,” LIRS stated. Among their research-related recommendations, LIRS suggests learning from work and research already carried out in the U.S. and in other countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; developing “holistic indicators of integration outcomes with input from a wide range of stakeholders, including immigrants, refugees and nonprofit organizations, and building on their best evaluation practices;” collecting quantitative and qualitative data, particularly so that the “lived experiences of members of receiving communities and New Americans are voiced” and inform the approach to integration; and conducting longitudinal studies, as integration is not a short-term process.
Many university-based researchers, for example, are already exploring immigrant populations and their impact in the local areas within which they live and work. Partnerships among local initiatives, stakeholder organizations, and local researchers to study a place’s growing immigrant population and its impact can help shape the formation, goals, efforts, and outreach of integration and welcoming initiatives. Quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods research strategies are an important part of the research process to paint the most detailed portrait of a particular place’s experience with immigration. An understanding of what data say about immigrant settlement in a place is important. But it’s also important to engage a broad swath of different sectors of the community to learn about the varying perspectives and experiences people have on these issues. Research about, and evaluation of, a program’s efforts to implement actions to meet its goals and the broader impact of the program on the community, are important for understanding the extent to which the program is successful at meeting its goals, encouraging immigrant integration, and shaping a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone among the receiving community. Ultimately, in order to be as robust as possible, existing and new local, state, and federal efforts around immigrant integration should be grounded in the available empirical evidence. Furthermore, existing and new initiatives should work in partnership with researchers to not only have a solid foundation upon which to build an initiative, but to ensure research about impact is built into an initiative’s framework over time to help shape and steer processes of integration and receptivity in a particular place.