U.S. needs an immigrant, rather than immigration, policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jan 24 14:48:16 UTC 2009

U.S. needs an immigrant, rather than immigration, policy
Tomás R. Jiménez

Friday, January 23, 2009

President George W. Bush's accomplishments on immigration reform fell
well short of the comprehensive plan that he and others envisioned.
Yet the Bush administration did more than any other in modern history
to lay the groundwork for a much-needed immigrant integration policy.
The Obama administration must now use that beginning to build a bolder
immigrant integration policy - an immigrant policy that stands
alongside our immigration policy.

The federal government hasn't paid much attention to immigrant
integration in recent history. Any policies related to immigration
have dealt almost exclusively with who should be allowed in, who can
stay and who should go. When it comes to integration, the policy has
been one of no policy. The closest departures from a federal
laissez-faire approach are symbolic gestures, like resolutions
affirming the primacy of English and speeches about the importance of
becoming American punctuated by fist pounding.

Under Bush's watch, the federal government, through the U.S. Office of
Citizenship, started very quietly to do something about immigrant
integration. Created when the Department of Homeland Security took
over the nation's immigration apparatus in 2003, the Office of
Citizenship has helped overhaul the citizenship test, publish
preparation materials for the citizenship test in multiple languages,
and created a Web site ( www.welcometoUSA.gov) that contains
information about everything from how to find an English language
class to where to volunteer to help immigrants integrate.

But the Office of Citizenship has been working all too quietly. Rather
than merely promoting citizenship and American civic identity, the
office ought to implement initiatives that foster a form of
integration that is mutually beneficial to immigrants and their
adoptive country.

The Office of Citizenship should begin by helping immigrants learn
English. If there is one thing on which people on all sides of the
immigration debate agree, then it is that learning English is highly
desirable. Though all evidence points toward high levels of English
language acquisition over time, those who can't speak English suffer
from diminished earning power, have a tougher time being involved in
their children's lives, and can't fully participate in life in the
United States. But English language classes are notoriously
over-enrolled, and good teachers are hard to come by. The Office of
Citizenship ought to make grants available for more classes and
teacher training to local government and nongovernmental

The Office of Citizenship can also help immigrants better use the
skills they bring with them. Some have called for an immigration
policy that favors the highly skilled, not realizing that we already
have a sizable skilled immigrant population. The problem is that these
people can't get the kinds of jobs they were trained to do. The
Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration
estimates that 1.3 million college-educated immigrants are unemployed
or underemployed in jobs like dishwasher, taxi driver and security
guard because U.S. employers do not recognize foreign credentials.
This tragic waste of skills hurts both immigrants and our economy. The
Office of Citizenship can help create a program that translates
foreign credentials for employers so that the nation's skilled
newcomers fulfill their potential in the labor market.

Finally, far too many immigrants fall prey to scams perpetrated by
individuals who promise to expedite their citizenship, find them jobs
and help them buy a home. These scams undermine trust between
immigrants and American institutions and are corrosive to integration.
The Office of Citizenship should develop programs that educate
immigrants about their legal rights and the potential threat of scams.

The Office of Citizenship is not a substitute for mechanisms that
drive integration, like good schools and anti-discrimination laws. Nor
should federally led integration efforts impose an ethnically
chauvinistic version of American identity, something that the Office
of Citizenship has been careful to avoid. But our nation of immigrants
must have a bolder immigrant policy; one that promotes integration not
by passively encouraging it, but by providing the tools that foster
integration that is good for both immigrants and their new home.

Tomás R. Jiménez is an Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation and
assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University. He is also a
contributing author to "Mandate for Change: Policies and Leadership
for 2009 and Beyond" (Lexington Books).


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