It’s a fact: immigrants represent one in six American workers. Historically, though, federal immigration policy has barely acknowledged their interest in accessing the same skill-building opportunities other workers receive. While higher-profile immigration issues often grab headlines, a vital measure of long-term immigration success is how New Americans are fully engaged as students, workers, and members of our broader civic community. Incorporating immigrant workers at all levels of our workforce and across every industry would also send a powerful message about the importance of racial equity in our economy. Given that many immigrants are people of color, this is especially true.
Issues impacting immigrants in the United States have elevated beyond the need for a task force. The Biden administration has the opportunity to lead on immigrant inclusion from the outset of its term. Therefore, the White House should establish an Office of New Americans (ONA), housed within the Executive Office of the President. This new Office would be responsible for coordinating immigration-related policy across the federal government. It would also support the adoption and replication of effective immigrant inclusion policies developed at state and local levels.
Immigration policy governs who is allowed to enter the United States, under what conditions, how long they may stay, and what legal status they have. The U.S. has passed myriad immigration laws over the past two centuries, including major reforms in 1965, 1986, and 1996.
While these decisions are crucially important, they do not constitute the whole of any person’s experience in the United States. In addition, they are typically governed by the Judiciary Committees in Congress and by the Department of Homeland Security and State Department in the executive branch.
In contrast, very little legislation on immigrant inclusion policy has been introduced to date. Instead, Congress and the White House have left the process of incorporating newcomers largely to chance, with some interventions by states, localities, and nonprofit organizations, but no broader federal strategy. Nor has there been any major federal investment of resources; with the exception of very modest funding for English language learning and refugee resettlement, the federal government does not provide dedicated funds for immigrant inclusion activities.
Yet immigrant inclusion is vital to the health of American society and to ensuring an inclusive economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and recession. Cabinet departments as varied as Education, Labor, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) all have a role to play in supporting immigrant skill-building and economic flourishing. Without a federal ONA, there is no agency playing an “air traffic control” role among these many departments.
Immigrants and refugees – and the communities they live and work in – deserve equitable access to education and workforce opportunities. A key component of a new federal Office of New Americans would be to support immigrant skill-building, ideally through a “Skills for New Americans” initiative that would ensure these workers are fully incorporated in every aspect of adult education and workforce development policy.
Well-resourced adult education and workforce development policies can connect immigrants to skill-appropriate roles. Correspondingly, American businesses gain a larger pool of skilled workers for jobs they’ve had trouble filling in the past. Realizing this, in recent years many states and localities have taken a more active public policy approach to immigrant inclusion.
This local success proves that intentional, well-crafted policies can help immigrants and our wider communities thrive, both economically and socially. A federal Office of New Americans should incorporate best practices from the state and local level into federal immigrant inclusion strategies.
A Skills for New Americans initiative could begin this work immediately through existing federal government programs, such as by:
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of digital skills for America’s workers. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of immigrants and English learners face digital literacy gaps. Ensuring these workers have access to in-demand technological skills is vital to federal immigrant inclusion work. Additionally, immigrant communities need access to broadband and digital devices to participate in training and upskilling programs. Expanding digital literacy programs that are inclusive of immigrant workers should be a top concern for the Office of New Americans.
A wide array of constituent groups will welcome a federal Office dedicated to immigrant inclusion, including:
An ONA could also garner support from advocates for marginalized job seekers of all backgrounds. Breaking down institutional barriers to employment is a shared goal. Immigrant inclusion must be part of an intentional strategy to provide all of these communities with meaningful access to education and training.
The need for federal coordination is as inevitable as it is necessary. As mentioned, this important work is already happening at lower levels of government. Approximately seven states nationwide have their own Office of New Americans, and roughly thirty cities have established mayoral Offices of Immigrant Affairs. The ability to coordinate at the national level will only become more critical as these Offices expand and multiply.
This is an important moment for the futures of our local businesses and economies, our recovery, and immigrant workers across the country. Contact the White House today and urge the Biden Administration to establish an Office of New Americans.
Pictured: President Joe Biden prepares to sign a number of Executive Orders on his first day in Office (WH.gov)