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A part of immigration reform even critics like: integrating new Americans (+video)

Proposals to help immigrants integrate into US culture take up only 30 pages in an 800-page immigration reform bill, but they are winning broad support – even among some critics of the overall legislation.

By Staff writer / May 1, 2013

Reyna Avila, who recently received a work permit and Social Security card under new Obama administration policy for young immigrants, is shown here at her place of work on April 2, 2013, in Phoenix. A new immigration bill includes funding to encourage new immigrants to integrate more fully with the wider community.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File

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WASHINGTON

In an immigration reform debate loaded with bitter disputes, there’s vast bipartisan support for a small, as-yet-overlooked part of the Senate’s bipartisan legislation: doing more to integrate new immigrants into American civic and cultural life.

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Beneficiaries of such assimilation efforts would be brand new immigrants, as well as those who have lived illegally in America for years but who, under immigration reform, are seeking legal status and, some, eventual citizenship.

“I appreciate the attention given in the bill to expanding resources for improving assimilation and the integration of immigrants in our society, especially in terms of promoting English-language and civics education,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, a skeptic of the overall immigration package, at a hearing on the immigration reform bill last week. 

Where will the millions of hours of English-language instruction that the undocumented will need, if they are to obtain green cards, come from? ask advocates for immigrants. And with the prospect of perhaps 10 million illegal immigrants moving along the road to citizenship over the next decade, where will communities look for resources and best practices to begin to bring them out of the shadows and into community life? they wonder.

Today, America’s immigrant integration system is best known for letting local groups help new immigrants in ways unique to their communities. What current integration efforts don’t do, however, is deliver any comprehensive strategy for ensuring that new Americans get a firm rooting in their wider, new communities.

Some conservative immigration analysts point to the specter of the Boston Marathon bombings, allegedly conducted by two young men admitted to the US as child refugees, as evidence that the nation’s system of “patriotic assimilation” is due for an overhaul.

“It’s very striking to see there’s almost nothing intentional the federal government does to ensure immigrant integration. It mostly leaves the integration process to chance, leaves it to states and localities to figure out," says Margie McHugh, co-director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. "This kind of made sense 100 years ago. It certainly is an unintelligent and unstrategic [approach] for this day and age.”

The Senate bill, whose section on integration spans some 30 pages of a piece of legislation that is more than 800 pages, proposes several steps to help form a more comprehensive integration strategy: 

  • The bill strengthens an existing office within the Department of Homeland Security charged with overseeing immigrant integration efforts by providing it funding for full-time staff, rather than employees loaned from other departments.
  • It charges that office with establishing national immigrant integration goals and offers an additional $20 million a year in funding for grants aimed at improving assimilation and citizenship efforts. Currently, the government spends about $5 million to $10 million a year on such grants.
  • The legislation sets up a new public-private foundation, led by the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the naturalization process, to help fund integration efforts with corporate donations.
  • Finally, it restarts a task force on new Americans first created by President George W. Bush, with a mandate to produce a report within three years on recommended changes to immigration policy to encourage integration. 
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