Second of two articles. Part 1 is here.
Imagine that you have just arrived in your new country. It’s cold here and your feet break out in a rash because you are not used to wearing socks. Your training as a nurse does not get you a job, even though they need nurses here, because you don’t speak English and you need different credentials. You clean hotel rooms to pay the rent. You want to learn English but waiting lists are long, the programs are far from your house and working two jobs and taking care of your children gives you little time. You know if you are going to succeed here, you must learn English so you keep trying. At the end of the day, you are still grateful, because you have come from a place of war, where your children never had enough to eat. You have a lot to offer this new country and you will do what it takes to succeed here. You just need a little help to get there.
This is the story of so many immigrants to America. Immigrant waves throughout history have faced similar struggles, despite real differences over time in racial make-ups and the state of immigration law. Newcomers — whether Polish, Irish, Italian or Mexican — have always faced concern about language, a feeling of scarcity and protection of our resources for those who are already here and a general distrust of those who are “different.”
Yet, history and research show us that the integration of immigrants does happen — and can be significantly aided by intentional programs. The faster this happens, the better it is for everyone. This process — which we now call immigrant integration — is naturally a two-way process. Those who are coming here must learn how to apply their skills and survive in a new culture and a new language. Those who are here must watch the environment around them change, hear a new language spoken and allow space for newcomers, trusting that successful integration makes for shared prosperity.
An earlier article, "Why Washington can't wait for immigrant integration," laid the economic, demographic and political context for immigrant integration in the state. This article proposes a specific integration agenda. There are other important opportunities besides the ones mentioned below. Equally important to what we do is simply that we act with full commitment from the state’s political and business leadership.
Washingtonians are eager to support immigrant integration strategies. In 2007, a statewide poll conducted by Lake Research Partners surveyed state residents on key ideas and strategies. Among other findings, 90 percent of voters supported helping immigrants to learn English and 86 percent supported citizenship programs that help eligible immigrants get naturalized.
Proposed below are six specific ideas for Gov.-elect Jay Inslee and the Legislature to create a Washington that maximizes the potential of immigrants for the benefit of us all. The ideas are based on two important principles.
First, all our strategies should rely on “targeted universalism.” John Powell, director of Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, describes targeted universalism to mean using targeted strategies to achieve universal goals, instead of using universal strategies to achieve universal goals. For example, if the goal is universal health care, it is not enough to simply provide insurance to everyone. If poor communities of color don't have facilities of consistent care in their neighborhoods, if there are no interpreters who can assist in health care situations, or if there are other cultural barriers to even stepping into a clinic, then simply providing insurance does not help very much. Instead, we need to supplement universal goals with targeted strategies based on a deep understanding of the needs, behaviors and motivations of the most vulnerable populations.
The second principle is that we need to break down silos between issues and engage all sectors of our community in seeking solutions through public-private partnerships.
- 1. Expand public and private sector opportunities for English language learning. English ability is possibly the most important indicator of level of immigrant integration, opening up job opportunities and allowing for engagement with education, healthcare and overall sense of belonging. Today in Washington state, more than 1.1 million people speak a language other than English at home and almost 50 percent of immigrants age 5 and older speak English less than “very well.”
In 2008, the New Americans Policy Council recommended that the state invest in a public-private campaign to expand English language learning as a top strategy. A campaign should use innovative media strategies, including ethnic media, to develop opportunities for English language learning; expand successful existing programs such as the state's Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (IBEST) to reach more levels of English learners; expand tested innovative models (such as English Innovations, which teaches both computer literacy and English skills simultaneously; and increase access for classes by getting employers to provide English classes and incentives at the workplace.
- 2. Stop brain waste. In Washington state, "brain waste” — when college educated people are either unemployed or under-employed in jobs that do not utilize their skills — affects a remarkable 20 percent (about 30,000 people) of all college-educated immigrants in the labor force, according to Migration Policy Institute. I remember meeting a taxi driver who had been a surgeon in Somalia.
As governor, Inslee could immediately direct licensing boards and the State Apprenticeship Council to identify high priority fields where state licensing could be altered to utilize skilled immigrants with previous training while maintaining high standards. He could also create a centralized point of information on licensing procedures, certifications and credentials and support innovative efforts such as the Puget Sound Welcome Back Initiative that helps train and connect skilled foreign medical professionals with jobs.
- 3. Create or expand targeted immigrant small business incubators. Nationally, one in six new business owners in the U.S. is an immigrant, according to a 2012 study by Fiscal Policy Institute. In 2010, immigrant businesses provided $1.3 billion or 9.8 percent of Washington’s total business income.
Still, we lack coordinated and funded programs to help new immigrants start businesses. Two 2010 reports by the University of Washington and Seattle University showed that Hispanic, Asian and minority businesses have faced enormous challenges with regulations, red tape and access to credit. Microcredit, business incubators, certification assistance programs, business mentoring or counseling are untapped gold mines to bring more revenue to the state while strengthening the creation of immigrant small businesses.
- 4. Naturalize all eligible immigrants. Approximately 140,000 Washington immigrants — the tenth largest number of all states in the country—are eligible to get citizenship but do not because of substantial barriers, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that naturalized citizens earn between 50 and 70 percent more than noncitizens and have been able to weather the effects of the recent economic recession more successfully than noncitizens. They also have better job opportunities, participate more in their communities and schools, and consume more.
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