Are More Resilient Economies Better at Integrating Immigrants?

9.27.12 | Despite new proposals to ease visa limitations for highly skilled workers, the bulk of our immigration policy debates still focus primarily on stemming the tide of illegal immigration. But researchers say instead of focusing on protecting our borders, we would be wise to invest in the potential and underused skills of the immigrants who are already here.

A new scorecard released by USC’s Center for The Study of Immigrant Integration last week ranks ten California regions on key indicators of immigrant integration including measures of economic success like jobs and housing, “warmth of welcome,” and civic engagement.

Here in California, one-third of the labor force is immigrant and roughly one-half of the state’s children live in households with at least one foreign-born parent. BRR Network member Manuel Pastor, who led the research, has argued that supporting young people of color, including immigrants, and helping them reach their full potential is imperative to ensuring economic prosperity for our country.

In this study, Pastor and his colleges examined 28 indicators in four categories in ten counties throughout the state. The categories were “economic snapshot (how immigrants are doing now), economic trajectory (how immigrants do over time), warmth of welcome (how receptive the host society is), and civic engagement (how involved immigrants are in civic life)”

Researchers found that while all regions faced some challenges, suburban counties with stronger economies actually did the best on this scorecard at integrating immigrant populations. Santa Clara, for example, which performed at the top of the list, has a large population of higher skilled Asian immigrants who have made significant progress over time. But Pastor says the region has also made progress in helping lower skilled populations of Mexican and Latin-American immigrants.

“Santa Clara County has really been ahead of the game,” he said in an interview at KQED News, “with an office of immigrant integration, with a community foundation that’s been actively investing in immigrant integration activities including English-learning classes, and also a culture, both on the business side and the labor side that’s really celebratory of immigrants.”

In contrast, regions in the state traditionally thought of as welcoming to immigrants like San Francisco and Los Angles actually pose some significant challenges to integrating immigrant groups because of the high cost of living.

And Fresno, with its weak rural economy and social infrastructure, fared the worst. Research found Fresno lacks enough English classes to meet demand, for example, and has slower naturalization rates.

Writing at the Huffington Post, Pastor notes that we already knew that immigrant integration is associated with regional growth. Previous research has shown that the share of foreign-born residents is often associated with rapid GDP growth.  He notes that the benefits immigrants bring to the economy and country as a whole too often get lost in our partisan policy debates:

“Their well-being is our well-being,” he writes. “It doesn’t make any sense (or, speaking as an economist, cents) to pass over their ability to strengthen our economy, keep us in touch with the rest of the world, and revitalize communities.”

Pastor says we need to lift up best practices and help regions and states learn from where others have been successful and where they still need work.

The Brookings Institution’s Audrey Singer agrees and has done just that in her new paper “Investing in the Human Capital of Immigrants, Strengthening Regional Economies.”

Singer examines how regions can invest in immigrants already in the U.S. to help boost short- and long-term economic growth. She points to programs and strategies that can unlock and build skills of immigrants in two groups: high-skilled immigrant professionals trained abroad, and middle-skilled immigrants.

Immigrants who come to the U.S. with at least a bachelor’s degree are likely to be overqualified for the jobs they’re working in, Singer notes. These workers face barriers such as a lack of social networks, an unfamiliarity with the U.S. job search process, or credentials that are often unrecognizable to U.S. employers. Like the engineer who drives a taxi or the human resources director who works as a nanny, these workers are often forced into these kinds of “survival jobs,” instead of being able to work in their trained fields.

Singer spotlights programs like Upwardly Global, which works with immigrants in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco to rebuild skills and connect them with mentors and employers. Singer says there is a large untapped potential that employers are often unaware of. Upwardly Global educates employers about potential, and provides information on the visa system and how to evaluate credentials from abroad.

“Moving some of these immigrants into jobs they were trained for or putting them
 on career tracks to fill regional shortages of workers, for example, in engineering, healthcare support, and information technology would accelerate job mobility, likely increasing earnings and boosting local revenue,” Singer writes.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation’s new  “Immigrant Bridge Program” will provide support and job training to immigrant workers and also plans to offer low-interest microloans to cover the costs of retraining or re-credentialing in their fields.

Singer also highlights programs that are working to train more middle-skilled immigrant workers through partnerships between employers, technical schools, and community colleges. In contrast to the often-heard complaints about competition immigrants create for low or middle-skilled jobs, these programs aim to to link training with projected needs in the job market to address shortages for local economies.

This group of immigrants is often unable to advance
due to lack of basic education and limited or no English skills, Singer reports. So projects that can pair skills training with basic education and language skills can be really beneficial and allow students to learn everything necessary at an accelerated pace.

In Seattle, for example, Shoreline Community College worked with the Workforce Development Council of Seattle-King County to identify a shortage of automobile service workers and develop a training program for these jobs. The program enrolls primarily low-income, immigrant, and first-time college students.

And in Portland and Chicago, work underway in the manufacturing sector to both train workers in technical skills and provide English language training.

Singer says how easily programs like these are to replicate depends on leadership and the availability of funding. But collaboration is key.

“Regional economies matter,” she writes “but state and local governments, educational institutions, nonprofits, and civic and community leaders all play a role in how immigrants integrate into regional labor markets. Ultimately, human capital is the most important ingredient for long-run regional economic prosperity, and efforts to augment human capital must include immigrants and take account of their particular assets and challenges.”

Photo/ Sea of Legs

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