Lawmakers in the immigration debate are neglecting the issue of whether newcomers assimilate once they have legal status.
A casual observer watching the Senate Judiciary Committee debate the immigration bill this month would think that a green card solves all problems. The committee is intensely focused on how and when green cards are given out and who gets priority in the divvying-out process. Left unaddressed are the assimilation hurdles that foreigners face after they get that all-important document that allows them to live in the U.S. permanently and to eventually apply for citizenship.
“There is almost a laissez-faire attitude about immigration in the United States.… We are not very intentional about how we help you integrate,” said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, communications director for IMPRINT, a coalition that helps newly arrived immigrants find jobs.
Congress has good reason to focus on green cards. The millions of foreigners in the country illegally or on temporary visas have more-immediate problems than adapting to a new culture. They have to worry about getting caught driving without a license, if they are undocumented, or about what happens if they lose their job, if they have a work visa. Once immigrants have a green card, they never have to think about missing a visa-expiration deadline. In terms of the law, they are home free.
But their stories don’t end there. Some 1.8 million college-educated immigrants who are here legally are unemployed or underemployed—driving taxis, or working in chicken-processing plants or at other low-skilled jobs, according to the Migration Policy Institute. They came as refugees, winners of a green-card lottery, or because a family member sponsored them. Unlike people who arrive with work-sponsored visas, they didn’t have a job waiting for them. But many of them are highly qualified. MPI calls it a “brain waste.”
That isn’t supposed to happen. In the 1950s, U.S. policymakers explicitly modeled the immigration system around potential newcomers’ family ties and employment prospects, to ensure they would have somewhere to go when they arrived. The stereotype of a physician driving a taxi is most often associated with the “point system” in Canada and Australia that the United States has explicitly rejected.
Yet newly arrived engineers and doctors in the United States still face cultural and bureaucratic obstacles to working in their fields. Some barriers are silly. Others are more serious. If immigrants come from a country where people test into employment positions, they may not realize they actually have to apply for a job in the United States. They may have trouble with the language. Their credentials may not mesh with U.S. licensing systems. (One example: A physical therapist from Ireland was not permitted to test for a license in Pennsylvania because her degree, from Trinity College in Dublin, did not include Pennsylvania history.)
The Senate’s lack of attention to these matters is frustrating to the groups that help immigrants assimilate, because there will be no better time to talk about it all. “There’s a lot of media attention on H-1Bs, low-skilled workers, the path to citizenship. For comprehensive immigration reform to be truly comprehensive, [underemployed immigrants] have to be taken into account,” said Nikki Cicerani, executive director of Upwardly Global, an organization that connects skilled immigrants with employers.
Authors of the Senate bill have included an assimilation provision, but its language only hints at immigrants’ real-world problems. The bill calls for an “Office of Citizenship and New Americans” within the Homeland Security Department’s visa-processing office. Its duties would be to “promote institutions and training on citizenship responsibilities” and to coordinate “immigrant integration programs across the federal government and with state and local entities.”
People close to the immigrant community question whether such an office would be effective. It would be housed in an already overworked division within one of Washington’s biggest and most diverse Cabinet departments. “The government isn’t very good at managing up,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, meaning that an office buried inside DHS would have little sway across the federal bureaucracy.
Vargas and his colleagues prefer to see the office housed in the White House, where its director would have equal access to all the federal agencies that touch immigrants’ lives. The Health and Human Services Department, for example, handles refugee resettlement. English-language instruction is in the Education Department’s bailiwick. Job training falls to the Labor Department.
Homeland Security’s current role in assimilation—helping legal residents prepare for the naturalization test—doesn’t even address immigrants’ day-to-day lives. Knowing which countries the United States fought in World War II doesn’t help a foreign-born accountant get licensed in California.
Most skilled immigrants who have trouble finding work need only a “onetime intervention” to get them on their feet, Cicerani says. An employment counselor can help tweak a résumé, work through credentialing issues, and conduct a few practice interviews. Many immigrants are easy clients compared with typical government-assistance recipients—low-skilled workers who needs multiple interventions just to nab an entry-level job.
Advocates for these immigrants are asking for only minor changes to the Senate bill, especially compared with the requests of other lobbying forces such as high tech. They simply want language that acknowledges the breadth of the barriers facing new immigrants. The activists think the measure should mention job-search assistance, for example, so that states know they should fund programs beyond English or adult education.
The assimilation community’s biggest problem is getting lawmakers’ attention. The bill’s sponsors are busy fending off poison-pill amendments and searching for supporters on the floor. Because no true champion has emerged, any immigration bill that emerges from Congress may well end up silent on assimilation issues. A path to citizenship? Check. A path to productive citizenship? You’re on your own.
This article appears in the May 18, 2013, edition of National Journal as Taxi Driver, Ph.D..
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