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Column: America once excelled at immigrant integration. Here’s the way back.

BY   July 27, 2016 at 10:48 AM EST
Latino leaders and immigration reform supporters gather at Farrand Field on the campus of the University of Colorado to launch "My Country, My Vote," a 12-month voter registration campaign to mobilize Colorado's Latino, immigrant and allied voters October 28, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a forum held by CNBC before the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Boulder. Photo by Evan Semon/Reuters

Latino leaders and immigration reform supporters gather at Farrand Field on the campus of the University of Colorado to launch “My Country, My Vote,” a 12-month voter registration campaign to mobilize Colorado’s Latino, immigrant and allied voters October 28, 2015. The rally was held ahead of a forum held by CNBC before the U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Boulder. Photo by Evan Semon/Reuters

In an election season full of heat, we have not seen much light on a host of issues that should be at the forefront of debate. Discussion around education, for example, arguably one of the most important issues for our country and our future, is largely absent. We have not heard much about what candidates are planning to do to improve the educational pipeline from expanding early childhood education to helping students not only afford, but complete, college.

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Another issue we would like to hear more about is how candidates are planning to close the technology gap. This is especially important to the Latino community since half of our families lack Broadband access at home.

Yet even on an issue that we have heard about constantly – immigration – the discussion has been disappointingly limited to extreme proposals — on one hand, the wall and on the other, a promise of comprehensive immigration reform. While we clearly support comprehensive immigration reform and want to see it enacted as soon as possible, gaining legal status is just one part of the immigration journey in this country. And that is why we believe much more attention needs to be given and more policy-making needs to happen around the issue of immigrant integration.

While we clearly support comprehensive immigration reform and want to see it enacted as soon as possible, gaining legal status is just one part of the immigration journey in this country.

At the turn of the last century, when America experienced its first major wave of immigration, the question of how immigrants should be integrated into American society was a major focus not only of government, but of the private and nonprofit sectors as well. The 1 percent of 19th and 20th Century America, like business titan Andrew Carnegie, used their wealth to help the new Americans among them. Recognizing that people needed a place to educate themselves about their new country and become more familiar with English, Carnegie endowed the Carnegie library, a network of institutions that were free and open to the public, unlike the vast majority of libraries in that era. To this day, libraries are still often the first stop for today’s aspiring Americans.

The burgeoning nonprofit sector of that time created the settlement houses, which provided services that had been nonexistent until then. These organizations, such as the iconic Hull House founded by Jane Addams in Chicago provided education, daycare, and healthcare to workers, the poor, and immigrants. Hundreds of settlement houses sprung up in the early 20th century in more than 32 states. Some of the National Council of La Raza’s affiliates like Erie House in Chicago are the direct descendants of these groups that are still in business today.

It is, in fact, these descendants and other nonprofit organizations that are doing the heavy lifting today of integrating immigrants. It is no longer a nationwide public-private enterprise but instead a patchwork of often small and overburdened community-based organizations. This makes no sense. It is still in everyone’s interest to make sure that immigrants integrate and are able to contribute as much as they possibly can.

Why make something so beneficial to everyone so difficult and onerous?

Support for immigrant integration should be bipartisan. It should include business, labor, and nonprofits. It should even include those whose views of immigrants are less than positive. If you believe that immigrants should know English and act like other Americans, why not support efforts to do just that?

It is not a question of whether immigrants want to integrate or not or whether they should be doing so on their own. They do want to integrate and that is exactly what immigrants are doing. And despite the lack of support, immigrants are integrating as quickly as, or more quickly than, previous generations of immigrants. But why make something so beneficial to everyone so difficult and onerous?

The kinds of investments that immigrant integration require – funding for English classes, job training, adult education and childcare – will pay off enormous dividends. Undocumented immigrants already contribute billions every year in state and local taxes and into Social Security from which they will never benefit. The Center for American Progress found that enacting immigration reform would result in a $1.5 trillion increase in our GDP over the next 10 years and add $109 billion in taxes. And if all 8.8 million permanent legal residents naturalized, the US Gross National Product would increase by an estimated $25 billion. Plus, a USC study concluded that naturalized immigrants realize an 11 percent boost in their personal income once they become citizens. On the other hand, mass deportation would cost at least $400 billion and a $1.6 trillion loss over 10 years, according to the America Action Forum.

It is no wonder that the banking and retail sectors have already embraced immigrant integration to gain new clients, create new workers, and to help communities. Beyond the moral imperative, embracing immigrant integration is not only the continuation of a venerable American tradition, it makes dollars and sense for our future well-being.


Editor’s note: The PBS NewsHour is hosting a series of columns to run during both of the 2016 national political conventions.

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