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

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    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.
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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.

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. 

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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. 

What that amounts to, says a Senate Democratic aide who worked on the integration provisions in the bill, is “a more proactive and constructive integration policy than we’ve had in the past, where we’re actually proactively thinking, ‘How do we best use this human capital to our country’s advantage?’ ”

What does that add up to in practice? Many different things for different communities, Senate aides and immigrant advocates say. Some locales will be able to expand mentorship programs, in which a native-born American helps a prospective citizen figure out the local PTA or study for the citizenship exam. Other communities could provide better coordination of information on issues such as GED classes or small-business loans.

What it doesn't add up to are answers for some of the integration system's pressing questions. The $20 million annual grants, for example, won't begin to touch even the English-language skills requirement, Ms. McHugh says.

Immigration reformers, then, hang their hopes on the new foundation the law would establish to generate private funding for programs when a financially strapped federal government cannot foot the bill.

Several corporations "have expressed huge interest in working with [the US Citizenship and Immigration Services] to provide money to nonprofits and local communities in order to teach English," among other initiatives, "because they see it as advantageous to themselves," says the Senate aide. "They understand the value of their workers understanding English and integrating into local communities."

Those who will be handling the bumper group of prospective Americans see the legislation in much the same way.

The bill is not a “sea change” in the US government’s efforts on integration, says Stacy Martin, a spokesperson for Lutheran Immigrant Relief Services, one of seven organizations that resettle refugees in the US.

Instead, the bill shows “an understanding that you don’t take a test and automatically see yourself as a full part of the community,” says Ms. Martin. “If we’re going to be successful as a country, across every sector ... then everyone needs a path to engagement.”

Even before a wave of potential new citizens, some advocates worry that the US isn’t doing enough to bring residents of the United States into the fullness of citizenship. Currently, there are more than 13.5 million legal permanent residents of the US, according to DHS statistics from 2011, the most recent data available. More than 8 million of those are eligible for citizenship, according to the same stats. The US offers about a million people permanent residence in the US every year.

“We’re losing something when we have people who have not actually gotten through the process of becoming citizens,” says a Senate Democratic aide who worked on the integration portion of the bill. “When they do take that last step, there’s even a higher level of investment in our country when you become a citizen.”

Getting new Americans that path is something that immigration reform advocates see as a key selling point of the bill.

“In 2007, and even today, the sources of opposition to immigration reform is sometimes economic but its also cultural fear that immigrants aren’t assimilating, that they aren’t learning English,” says Kevin Appleby, director of refugee and migration policy at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We’ve always pressed that integration is the antidote to that cultural fear.”

But that’s where bipartisan accord around immigrant integration breaks down – and does not appear anywhere near strong enough to pull the bill along on its own.

Advocates like Mr. Appleby believe that “the strongest integration policy is bringing people out of the shadows,” that keeping more than 10 million undocumented people in the country without access to engagement with American civic culture is unbearable.

On the other hand are some conservative and low-immigration advocates who are voluble opponents of the present immigration reform package but see integration as a key issue to be fixed on its own.

Speaking of the Boston bombings, Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies which advocates for lower immigration levels, offered a question at a recent Senate hearing on immigration reform: “What does it say about our broken patriotic assimilation system that legal, relatively privileged immigrant young people became so alienated that they engaged in this kind of mass murder against Americans?”

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