Op-Ed: Why the United States Needs an Immigrant Integration Policy


The thousands of migrants trying to enter the United States at the southern border have sparked a new wave of political debates over who should be allowed to enter the country and how minors and other asylum seekers should be treated.

The Republicans launched a political blitz against Democrats by describing President Biden as the cause of a so-called southern border push. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have agreed to pass legislation in the House that would pave the way for citizenship for millions of migrants, including “dreamers” and farm laborers. Neither side talks about how newcomers should be integrated into American life.

For a nation obsessed with immigration policy and the effects of immigrants on society, the United States devotes very little effort to integration policy. We at least manage to rank second among immigrant-friendly countries on the Index of migrant integration policies, but any help we offer newcomers is a patchwork at best; it ranges from hostility in some areas to decent programs in others. Many immigrants thrive in America, but their success is, like a 2011 to study concluded, “strongly stratified” by “educational and economic resources, racial inequalities and legal status”.

Biden’s immigration reform proposal, the US Citizenship Act, could begin to remedy our laissez-faire approach to inclusion. If adopted, it would represent a significant investment in the development of a national integration policy.

A key provision of Biden’s overhaul would create a national foundation to help coordinate integration efforts with state and local authorities and promote citizenship preparation programs among low-income and underserved populations. That alone would improve the dispersal quality of the American integration efforts that academics see as a major problem.

The law would establish a pilot grant program to jump-start integration efforts at the local level, and would allocate nearly $ 300 million for English-language training, workforce preparation and naturalization programs – possibly the largest such investment since the adoption of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. 1986. It would also commission a study on employment opportunities for immigrants with professional qualifications obtained abroad. As it is, many newcomers never find a way to put their skills and education to use in the United States.

Speeding up the integration process for immigrants is as good for American society as it is for newcomers. My own research on refugees shows how far certain provisions included in the Biden plan can go.

With a co-researcher, I examined recent refugees from five countries who arrived in the United States with varying skills and resources. Our analysis showed that refugees who took basic English classes were much more likely to go to school, and those who took vocational classes were more likely to be employed. These simple programs were more important in predicting school attendance and employment than other factors, including country of origin, pre-immigrant education levels, and previous occupation. In short, the language and workforce funding in the Biden plan could make a real difference in outcomes for immigrants.

Sadly, there are already warning signs that inclusion and integration programs could be scrapped as Congress embarks on the politics of immigration reform. the current republican plan, just like the bipartite immigration proposals in 2007 and 2013, does not contain meaningful integration programs. And in an environment where Republicans are try to position the democrats By prioritizing the needs of migrants over those of US citizens, some GOP lawmakers will surely oppose any agenda serving immigrants.

The Democrats also failed to maintain the integration policy in the first round of immigration legislation they pushed through the House. This may be politically expedient, and there is a chance it can be corrected later. But more likely, the piecemeal approach Democrats have taken will bring integration and inclusion agendas into the cracks.

As the debate over immigration reform grows, it is crucial that policymakers remember that their job is not just to determine whether and how to let people through the door. A sane immigration system must also determine how we want immigrants to interact with American society once they are here.

Francisco Lara-García is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University.


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