6 ways to help immigrants and the entire state

Commentary: Washington state would be much better off if it did more to integrate immigrants into the education system, business and society. Here is an action plan for the new governor and Legislature.
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Supporters of immigration reform rallied in Seattle on Nov. 8.

Commentary: Washington state would be much better off if it did more to integrate immigrants into the education system, business and society. Here is an action plan for the new governor and Legislature.

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.

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.

  • 5. Focus on kids:  Perhaps one of the most important areas to invest is in our children and their future. Consider these statistics:
  • One in four kids in Washington live in immigrant families; 84 percent of all children in immigrant families were US citizens by birth.
  • Children of immigrants accounted for over one-third of all children in low-income families.
  • In 2010, 23 percent of foreign-born families with children under 18 lived below the poverty threshold, compared to fewer than 8 percent for native-born families. 

Initiatives that ensure health care for all children and allow college-bound undocumented kids to access state-based financial aid are essential.

In addition, Washington must ensure that early childhood and education programs have a targeted focus on immigrant kids. The Road Map Project has taken this issue on by creating a special work group focused on ELL kids in the nine King County school districts covered by the project. Utilizing targeted universalism principles, the state Department of Early Learning should revise its recent policy change that requires home childcare workers to obtain a GED as part of its licensing. This policy ignores the fact that hundreds of immigrant home childcare workers do not need and will not be able to quickly obtain, a GED. Instead, DEL should be thoughtful about designing specific training goals and skills for those caregivers and then creating a process that helps them acquire those particular skills.

  • 6. Push for immigration reform.  Washington must play a critical role in our nation's upcoming 2013 debate on immigration reform. Living in the shadows without legal immigration status is one of the biggest barriers to integration. The fear of deportation, lack of ability to negotiate fair wages, or lack of access to services can squash any other integration efforts. The Center for American Progress estimates that legalizing undocumented immigrants would net $1.5 trillion in additional GDP to the U.S. economy over a decade. Washington stands to benefit tremendously. From legal immigrants waiting a decade or more to be re-united with an immediate family member to our industries that rely on immigrants, America’s broken immigration system is crippling our state.

Inslee and the Legislature should weigh in immediately with every member of our state's congressional delegation, urging them to take a proactive role in ensuring Washington’s future by passing immigration reform. Our immigration policies should reflect our values of family, human dignity and work. Olympia can also help build political momentum by: passing a state resolution on the need for immigration; pulling together top business leaders of corporations based in Washington (Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks) to push for reform; and conducting an economic analysis of the economic benefits of reform to the state.

This integration agenda is a series of steps toward successful integration of immigrants in our state. Let’s achieve a new level of shared economic prosperity in our state through truly inclusive programs. That’s good for everyone who lives here, and for our state as a whole. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a Democratic member of Congress, representing Washington state's 7th District.