The Case for Immigrant Integration

By Janet Murguía

Photo courtesy NCLR

Photo courtesy of NCLR

When it comes to immigration, the question is not if reform will happen but when.  Clearly, reform is in the best interest of our communities and of the country. However, a critical element of this debate remains on the fringes of the discussion: Immigrant integration.

Integration and citizenship stabilize families and communities—making official what is de facto, the clear stake that immigrants already have in this country.

A proactive approach to immigrant integration is essential for our country to reap the full benefits of the windfall that immigration reform represents—socially and economically. The lack of attention to what arguably is the most important post-enactment issue is not only troubling, but it also flies in the face of how our country responded during the great wave of immigrants at the turn of the last century.

At that time, every sector of society—government, business, philanthropy, labor, religious and nonprofit—played a role in helping immigrants adjust to life in the United States. In fact, some of our most venerated American institutions and movements, including universal public education and the public library system, have their roots in the all-out effort to help immigrants become Americans.

Today, the process of integration continues only because of the initiative and self-reliance that immigrants show in coming to this country. It is exceedingly difficult for most people to find the resources to become integrated. We as a nation have “outsourced” this critical work to overworked and under-resourced organizations.

I see this every day, working with the community-based organizations that make up our affiliate network. Fully three-quarters of them currently are doing integration work by providing English-language classes, adult education, job skills training and assistance with navigating the naturalization process. These organizations are, and will remain, critical partners in this process, but right now, they are the main (and often the only) source of support.

This does not make any sense. If there is one thing we know, it is that integrating immigrants and helping them to become citizens will result in unalloyed good for all of us. Immigrant integration is consistent with our national character. What makes us all Americans is not our background, but our adherence and commitment to a fundamental set of principles and values. Integration and citizenship stabilize families and communities—making official what is de facto, the clear stake that immigrants already have in this country.

Undocumented immigrants have deep roots in the U.S. According to survey research from the University of Southern California Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII), more than one-half of undocumented immigrants in California have been in this country for more than a decade. And one out of six children in California has an undocumented parent. Making sure that these children have a stable home is an investment in the state’s future.

We also know what immigrant integration will mean for California’s economy. The most conservative estimate, according to CSII, is that legalization will add 14 percent to an immigrant’s income, but many believe that figure to be as high as 25 percent. This translates to a boost of at least $4.6 billion and as much as $7.9 billion in total annual income earned by the state’s immigrant population. Those figures do not account for the increased tax revenue, job and small business creation, and demand for goods and services that higher incomes generate.

With this much at stake and so many benefits to reap, we cannot leave to chance the integration of millions of aspiring Americans. At the very least, we need to invest in the organizations that already are doing so much with so little. But they cannot do all the heavy lifting alone. We need to expand public-private-government partnerships and initiatives to respond to this task with the energy and robust effort it deserves.

In a state like California, with a sizable immigrant population, a proactive, well-resourced immigrant integration strategy stands to generate significant economic and social benefit for the state. California would be well served by creating and funding an office of immigrant integration that can support and coordinate this multidimensional task.

By helping immigrants become fully invested in California and the country, we can fulfill our commitment to our national motto, E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one.