(Page 2 of 3)
- 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.
Washington has a unique and longstanding program, run through the Office of Refugee Assistance (ORIA), that assists low-income refugees in achieving citizenship and brings in Federal dollars for a range of benefits. However, the value of citizenship as an economic development opportunity was only recognized in 2008, with the funding of a successful but relatively small state program, called Washington New Americans. WNA worked with partners across the state, utilized ethnic media, Citizenship Days and enormous amounts of pro-bono legal assistance to provide citizenship services to non-refugee populations and other low-income families.
Inslee and the Legislature should continue the state's significant funding of the ORIA program, while expanding the Washington New Americans Citizenship Program. The Department of Commerce could also fund Individual Development Accounts and include saving for citizenship fees. Engaging banks or credit unions, such as the Boeing Employees Credit Union, could bring people into the formal credit market and provide a mutually beneficial partnership.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!