The Cultural and Economic Benefits of Integrating Immigrants

Remember immigration?

Or, rather, remember the politics of immigration reform? How it was an issue whose political time had finally arrived? The Republicans were supposedly reeling from their Romney-fueled realization that they needed to be more than obstructionists on immigration reform if they were ever to attract new, non-white voters under the age of 65. Democrats remained, as Jon Chait once put it, willing “to trade political advantage for policy gain” on the issue. That is, they would help the GOP diversify its political appeal in return for a substantial win on one of Democrats’ core priorities.

Well, the political incentives on immigration remain essentially unchanged. The Republicans still need to broaden their appeal in the short-term, but their situation only stands to get more dire — there are about twice as many children (0–8 years old) of immigrants now than there were in 1990. This is simple political math: more diverse American schools today means a more diverse American electorate tomorrow.

And yet, the bipartisan Senate bill died an unceremonious death in the House (where GOP leaders never even let it come up for a vote). At that point, the Obama Administration’s immigration executive order pretty much put the final punctuation on the issue’s media cycle. While the politics around the order itself echoed around for a spell (as congressional Republicans explored shutting down the government or defunding the Department of Homeland Security in protest), the order essentially marked the last substantive movement on federal immigration policy.

That doesn’t mean, however, that comprehensive immigration reform has become less necessary or less important. Fortunately, there was a bit of interesting movement more recently. Last month, the White House Task Force on New Americans released its new strategic plan for “Immigrant and Refugee Integration.” The document, Strengthening Communities by Welcoming All Residents, is the result of an inter-agency review of current federal policies and programs for supporting immigrants in the United States. (For my post a few weeks ago on the plan’s education elements, click here.)

The release went largely unnoticed by the public and the media — and for relatively good reasons. While some of the plan’s proposed changes can absolutely improve the lives of new immigrants in the United States, there are serious limits to what the executive branch can do on its own. So while it’s probably a good idea to “Emphasize Existing Funding Opportunities to Assist New Americans” and “Ensure Federal, State, and Local Government Programs Uphold Civil Rights Obligations,” those sort of changes simply don’t have much practical juice. Much of the report reads this way: federal programs should coordinate better and ensure that key immigration priorities are emphasized.

Which is why the document’s framing might be its most important part. When I read the report, I couldn’t stop thinking about the key verb that its dozens of proposals supposedly support. At first blush, “integration” is a simple choice: it’s a kinder, gentler version of “assimilation.” But it also hints at the dual-facing nature of immigration. We often talk about the dangers prompting immigrants to leave their homelands and come to the United States — and how accepting them is part of what it means to be generous Americans. That is, we talk about how we are “a nation of immigrants” as though there is a sort of magnanimity involved in the process. We accept, support, and eventually assimilate (weak) new Americans as part of our strength. They get good things from us, and we give them freely because we can.

While this is certainly part of some immigration stories, it misses so much. Immigration is, in a variety of fluid, changing ways, the lifeblood of the United States. When we talk about “integrating” immigrants instead of “assimilating” them, we’re including the strengths and assets they bring to the country as part of the equation. The White House Task Force calls this “Integration as a Two-Way Process.” That is, we get at least as much from immigrants as they get from us.

Why does this framing matter? What do immigrants contribute to the country? Start with the economic value of immigration. Advocates for immigration reform usually talk about this — and the White House’s plan follows suit — as primarily a matter of high-skilled immigrants. From page 8 of the document:

[M]ore than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. In 2005, over half of new tech startups in Silicon Valley had at least one immigrant founder. A 2010 study by Jennifer Hunt and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle found that foreign-born workers obtain patents at two times the rate of native-born workers because, compared to the native-born population, a greater share of immigrants have science and engineering degrees.

But all of this misses a broader macro-economic trend. More or less all immigrants are valuable assets to the United States, whatever their credentials or skill sets. Low birth rates for native-born American mothers and the Baby Boomers’ looming retirement means that young immigrants (and their children) are essential economic resources. That is, we need adult immigrant labor today, but we really need to educate their children if we’re to have any chance of funding grandma and grandpa’s (increasingly lengthy) retirements. This means that state and federal policymakers need to find ways to help teachers and administrators to support these kids. Aside from some pockets of effectiveness, education policies and practices have a long way to go.

But this misses what I think is the best part of immigration. The cultural contributions of immigrants (mentioned prominently in the integration plan) are unfathomably large. As the Task Force puts it, simply “assimilating” new Americans to the United States’ mainstream culture risks losing the “diverse linguistic and cultural assets” that immigrants bring to the country.

This is something that cities w/dwindling populations — Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, etc — already know. Attracting, cultivating, and retaining immigrants is the whole ball game at this point for these communities. Obviously they need these folks for their labor, their incomes, and their taxes. But these cities also need them for their cultural contributions. Vibrant, diverse cities attract more people — and businesses.

You already know this. Think of any dynamic American city — Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Antonio, etc — and imagine it without the cultural contributions of immigrants their descendants. In that thought experiment, it doesn’t just get poorer. It also gets less interesting. Chicago’s polish sausages and pizza evaporate along with most of San Antonio’s best cuisine. New York loses salsa music (and dancing) along with most of the rest of its soundtrack. Los Angeles collapses into a monolingual, highway-riven suburb masquerading as a city.

An America that assimilates, rather than integrates, its immigrants isn’t just weaker or smaller — it’s also bland and boring. And while the White House’s new strategic plan is a good start for improving how the country supports New Americans, it’s at best a tentative step towards making robust welcoming communities a reality in the United States.


Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams