Exploring Immigration and Integration Initiatives in the United States


Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

AGI Minority Exchange Program

The German-American youth exchange program on the theme “Immigration, Integration, and a New Transatlantic Generation” is an innovative program which establishes new connections between communities that have grown principally from an immigration background and addresses common challenges of immigration and integration, such as discrimination, employment, political and societal leadership, education, and international engagement. Project participants include a core group of young leaders for engagement in intensive discussions, and a broader community of experts and advocates for interaction focused on issues of immigration, integration, and cross-cultural understanding.

The Washington, DC, portion of the program takes place in October, followed by the Berlin program in the spring. Participants at the seminar will engage in small groups and interact with leading experts from umbrella organizations dealing with immigration and integration, government, research institutions, and political foundations. They also have the opportunity to visit other institutions, including cultural/historical sites, offices of elected representatives, and non-profit associations that focus on issues of the underrepresented.

Leadership Training and Breakfast

The leadership training panel began with a personal mission exercise: Formulate your personal mission as an elevator pitch. To create a personal mission, consider:

  • What is the key idea (or project, process, plan, vision, etc.) that I am passionate about bringing to fruition?
  • What unique skills and strengths do I possess?
  • How can I channel those skills and strengths in direct service of this project?

Among the participants, the most prevalent of missions featured notions like social justice, social cohesion, and structural reform. Key takeaway: If one has been empowered, one should empower others. Clearly communicated missions and networks are vital to continued leadership growth. It is important to identify relevant networks and how to access them. Even more so than access, leaders should analyze how effectively they invest and engage in networks in order to advance their mission.

Panel 2: Public Health and Law

Health care should constitute a basic human right. Today, an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants have no access to health care in the United States. Many of the challenges can be traced back to reasons related to politics and public opinion. Both the Affordable Care Act and DACA are in jeopardy, which means many immigrants’ health care is in jeopardy.  Narratives and public opinion shape policy outcomes. As an example, many groups incorrectly claim that undocumented immigrants have access to federal health care benefits, when they in fact have no access. This can be seen in line with the current anti-immigrant narrative and, what is more, as an illustration of the still existing underlying racial tension in the United States.

In 2014, the U.S. experienced a surge of refugees from Central America. This influx, which the U.S. system was and is not able to cope with, added further fuel to the anti-immigration rhetoric. Upon arrival, the refugees receive no basic health care and are placed in detention centers to wait for the asylum process to start. This is especially concerning when studies show that roughly 90 percent of refugees have left their home countries due to credible reasons of persecution. Furthermore, 60 percent of female refugees have faced sexual abuse and/or assaults, either in their home countries or on their journey to the U.S. border. The question asked was: Is this the right way to deal with a global crisis?

Even though no big changes have occurred in law, President Trump’s executive order means that every undocumented person now, by default, is subject for removal. Oftentimes the removal procedure is conducted in accordance to a three-step process, i.e., apprehension, detention, and deportation. In connection with the issue of health care access, it is important to note that the fear of deportation has been identified as the number one reason for why people do not seek health care.

Even though the federal government has tightened its immigration policy, individual states and cities have taken steps to better integrate immigrants. Certain states have begun issuing municipal IDs and driver’s licenses, thereby providing immigrants a form of identification. The fact that certain states, like California, and cities have started applying a more immigrant-friendly approach, has led to an increase in intra-U.S. migration. Understandably, this trend has a significant economic dimension to it. Immigrants move from less immigrant-friendly states to more immigrant-friendly ones, which has led to economic losses in traditionally less immigrant-friendly states like Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia.

Panel 3: Teaching English and Bilingual Education

Learning the language of daily operation in the country where one settles is a vital factor for success and a gateway to improved living standards.

For twenty-five years, the Washington English Center, a community-based organization, has offered not only English-learning courses, but also services for workforce placement, professional training, and other support programs tailored to the needs of immigrant communities. Every week, the 350 volunteer teachers running the Center allow WEC to provide their services and resources to low-income adult immigrants at affordable rates. With a similar mission, the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School also aims to better the lives of the adult immigrant community in DC by promoting a holistic approach to integration, which includes citizenship classes and computer literacy classes, among others.

Following preliminary introductions, the floor was opened to the young transatlantists for discussion. The conversation centered on problems related to retaining students, creating safe spaces, insufficient funding, and difficulties of outreach.

The issue of retention is not an internal problem, but an external one. At WEC, enrollment numbers have taken a steep dive since November 2016, after having shown consistent upward trends five years prior. Often, immigrants seeking their services are already strongly committed individuals that understand the value of learning English. For these individuals, the urgent need to send money home (for instance) means that they are more motivated to adopt the English language in order to boost job prospects. Targeting those who do not actively seek out support requires more personal investment and more creative outreach efforts. Promotion strategies include engaging traditional grassroots campaigning tools (e.g., word of mouth, flyers), radio ads, social media, and networking with other organizations.

Many who are hesitant or unwilling to sign up for classes are reluctant out of a sense of fear. Here, both schools have tried to cultivate a safe environment. There are no requirements to disclose immigration status and no documents are necessary to apply for classes. Moreover, WEC has made a concerted effort to maintain a diverse faculty (e.g., staff that speak the same language as the community they’re serving), so that students can relate to their tutors. CRISPC tries to be accommodating by offering flexible scheduling; students are free to drop and take up classes per their situation. Flexibility is particularly important for immigrants who frequently juggle between shifting work hours and attending classes. Regular legal clinics and pro-bono aid is also available for the many that are trying to navigate the abstruse legal system.

In recent years, the tactic for integration has shifted to a career-oriented one. Under the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA), regulations have moved away from a narrow emphasis on language classes to establishing a range of programs designed to ease the integration process beyond the classroom. This included encouraging students to set higher career goals and strive for career mobility.

Inadequate funding is a major challenge for an organization like WEC that is structured around a volunteer model. Given limited funds, the center must consider which programs best fit the needs of the target population and prioritize the most effective programs. The charter school has the benefit of receiving a fifteen-year contract, allowing it to make long-term plans instead of competing for funding on a yearly basis.

From mental health counselling to student clubs, the Washington English Center and the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School are more than English-learning schools. The greatest advantage for those who attend is becoming a part of a community. Students come to learn English and discover not only the abundance of resources at their disposal, but also form bonds with others who share the same experiences and are facing the same struggles of integrating.

Panel 4: Integration in Business: Corporate Responsibility

In the U.S., immigrants are starting businesses at a rate two to three times that of the native-born population. As one of the fastest growing sectors of the American economy, this emerging market cannot be ignored.

Only 50 percent of businesses live past the first five years. The Office for Economic Opportunity, which provides $25 billion a year to businesses, is a lifeline to small businesses. In many instances, businesses applying for loans will be rejected by banks because they cannot meet the requisite FICO score or do not have enough collateral. When these businesses fail to obtain capital from traditional banks, they turn to the SBA. The 7A loans offered by the SBA are fronted by banks but are backed by a 75 percent government guarantee if the loan goes bad. At a rate of prime plus 2 percent for up to ten years, the 7A loan is reasonable for budding businesses and is an especially helpful tool for minority communities, women, and immigrants, who seek affordable means to finance their entrepreneurial undertakings. SBA connects small businesses that do not meet the 7A requirements to community development organizations and nonprofits that offer microloans (SBA provides grants to microloan intermediaries). Access to capital continues to be an issue, not only for immigrants and minorities, but also senior citizens and women.

The nonprofit group HACR works with large Fortune 500 companies to ensure diversity in the corporate space, with a focus on four core areas: employment, procurement, philanthropy, and governance.  HACR helps companies provide leadership development to their employees and bring awareness around issues of diversity in the corporate space. They also ensure that companies support Hispanics in their business models as well as community involvement.

Diversity in the workplace emerged as a central theme throughout the course of the discussion. The demographic data for loans by commercial banks was entirely opaque; it is unknown how much capital is going to minorities. Speaking to efforts at diversifying the workforce within the SBA, minorities remain grossly underrepresented in senior leadership positions. Many minorities will find themselves stuck in HR departments due to the perception that HR has no direct line to critical business decisions, and is therefore “terminal” for career mobility. The issue is not unique to government or corporate America. When models of success and value systems have been shaped by the same groups of people, it becomes difficult for outsiders to climb up the ladder. For instance, corporate expectations of international travel, which have become inextricably linked to senior-level jobs, significantly diminish opportunities for immigrant groups that are often reluctant to go abroad. Failure to recruit from a diverse pool has been and continues to be a problematic contributing factor. Many companies and agencies only recruit from a select number of institutions, or hire from unpaid internship positions, eliminating chances for those who cannot afford to work without compensation.

Panel 5: Immigrant Communities

With a population comprised of 40 percent blacks, 40 percent Latinos, and 20 percent Caucasian or other, District 6 in the city of Detroit is one of the most populous and diverse districts in the city. The Immigration Task Force, created under the district’s councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, brings together community leaders to discuss the city’s diversity needs and seeks to “support existing and future immigrant communities and build international relations as Detroit moves towards becoming an inclusive, diverse global city.”

Most recently, the Municipal ID legislation implemented in 2016, has streamlined the process for many to obtain identification cards. The program benefits not only undocumented immigrants, but also senior citizens, the formerly incarcerated, and other groups that have traditionally found it difficult to acquire ID. The reason for the legislation’s success has been its inclusiveness, as the municipal ID is available to anyone, not just foreigners. Many programs like “I am Detroit” aim to build cooperation among citizens and bridge the gap between new Americans and native Detroiters. The Task Force has also applied simple but effective solutions. For instance, installing image-based (rather than language-based) warning signs across the U.S.-Canadian border has reduced the likelihood of unintended border crossings. Other creative outreach activities, such as the creation of a “mobile office,” help circumvent transportation obstacles for immigrants. The annual naturalization ceremony has been an excellent way to promote civic engagement.

In 2014, Detroit became the 41st “Welcoming City,” a network of cities across the nation promoting greater hospitality toward immigrants. One of the mandates for the Mayoral Office of Immigrant Affairs (an indirect product of the Task Force) is to facilitate welcoming efforts for refugees in Detroit. In celebration of Refugee Awareness month (June), the Mayor’s office was opened to refugees, bringing media attention to refugee needs. However, due to budget constraints, initiatives to assist refugees have been admittedly lackluster. There is also little capacity to tackle all issues at once and inevitably, some concerns, such as healthcare, must be outsourced to other organizations. Moving forward, the Office is looking to convene more networks at both federal and international levels.

Second Site Visit:  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

In 2003, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was created under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to promote and better prepare 13 million legal permanent residents for citizenship. Since its creation, the USCIS has coordinated federal programming for citizenship, developed educational resources, and acted as a capacity builder for numerous non-governmental initiatives.

The USCIS identifies three significant obstacles for naturalization and their attempts to mitigate them:

  1. Immigrants do not know where to start with citizenship. As an official federal body, the USCIS consolidates a vast array of available resources and serves as a hub of credible information.
  2. Immigrants face language-related uncertainties. While almost nine million people have been eligible to apply for citizenship for many years, countless have been hesitant due to feeling like their English-language skills are inadequate to pass. The USCIS finances many language learning programs and supports education networks that offer citizenship classes.
  3. Not enough people see the added benefits of citizenship. Increasing awareness of the advantages of citizenship (e.g., civic engagement, sponsorship of family members, job availability, grants and scholarships) is one way the USCIS is encouraging immigrants to naturalize.

Recently, more proactive efforts have been made to facilitate a smoother transition for immigrants earlier in the process (e.g., providing information overseas on what immigrants need to settle in the U.S.). The transition from a paper-based to electronic system has made information more accessible to those living outside the United States. Additional barriers preventing some from naturalizing include application fees ($700, but supported by fee waivers) and tension between the national identity of one’s home country and U.S. citizenship. When it comes to integration, the USCIS favors a decentralized approach. While the integration of migrants has traditionally been the prerogative of local communities and cities rather than the federal government, the USCIS provides financial assistance and outsources more tailored initiatives to state and local actors.

The Deputy also spoke at length about the procedure for refugee resettlement in the U.S. once United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) makes initial screenings. During the discussion, participants questioned how the new administration’s unwelcoming attitude toward migrants has affected USCIS’s work. Specifically, concern about the reduced refugee cap (45,000) under President Trump was expressed. This is due to a shift in priorities to the asylum backlog. Moreover, previous caps were never reached, and President Obama’s 85,000 goal stretched the agency beyond its capacity. The humanitarian mission cannot be neglected, but the financial limitations prevent their ability to commit to all problems at once. Addressing the excitement surrounding a skills-based screening model, different states have dissimilar regulations on jobs and needs for jobs. Considering this, such an approach could be tricky given the amount of coordination it would entail.

Third Site Visit: Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany

It has taken Germans quite some time to realize that Germany, after WWII ended, has been shaped by immigrants. Today, the share of immigrants in Germany is bigger than the share in the United States, much of which is due to an influx of immigrants from EU states. Germany, with a population of almost 83 million, is the home to 8.7 million foreigners. At the same time, 18.6 million have a migration background. In recent years, the high number of asylum seekers has been a central issue. In 2015, Germany experienced 476,000 cases and in 2016 even more: 745,000. During the first half of 2017, the number decreased significantly, to approximately 70,000 cases. The German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been efficient in working on the backlog of asylum cases, with only under 100,000 cases open at present.

Immigrants in Germany face the challenge of integration in three layers: 1) integration into society, 2) language, and 3) economy. Only recently has the German government increased the funding for the BAMF, which, among other things, has led to an increase in the offer of integrative courses for immigrants and refugees: the number of participants has already risen to over 300,000. Even though the success of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in the recent German elections portrays new challenges, 87 percent did not choose to vote for the AfD. If Germany continues on the set path and, in addition, advocates for fair distribution of refugees between all EU countries, the influx of refugees to the EU should be manageable. Nevertheless, the refugee crisis” has left its mark on Germans’ overall feeling of security. According to a poll, 84 percent of Germans perceive terrorism to be the number one imminent threat, which has led to an expansion of border controls between Germany and Austria.

The AfD’s 13 percent election result also mirrors the spread of present-day xenophobia and Islamophobia in Germany. Since Germany currently is experiencing a rise of Islamophobia and even anti-Semitism, Germany is facing a risk for democracy. Alternatively, there is a very strong movement against xenophobia. Now that the AfD will be participating in the German Bundestag, the wider population will understand that the AfD can be a danger to democracy.

A failure of German integration is the lack of people of color in leadership positions in the government and corporations. The German Foreign Service does not have data on the diversity of its workforce. Germany might soon experience the first Minister of Foreign Affairs with a migration background, Cem Özdemir, the co-chair of the Greens, the son of Turkish parents.

Fourth Site Visit: Congress

As the Democratic Whip, the second highest ranking position among the Senate Democrats, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and his team have been trying for many years to pass a bill featuring an arrangement to provide a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants (DREAM Act). After many unsuccessful attempts at passing this legislation, President Obama set up Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to provide some temporary protection for unauthorized immigrant youth living in the United States. President Trump’s intention to end the program puts the onus on Congress to fashion immigration reform on a very divisive issue, with very limited time to reach an agreement.

The state of limbo is one major problem afflicting those presently residing in the U.S. under the DACA program. It makes planning for the future exceedingly difficult for both DACA receipients and their employers, who must battle with uncertainties surrounding revocation of legal status. Opponents of DACA frequently link the program to other immigration issues or use it as a bargaining tool (e.g., the insistence on heightened border security). Exaggerated fears of “chain migration” and perception of DREAMers as “skipping the line” are other commonly cited objections against the DREAM Act. Despite these objections, polls show that 80 percent of the population supports a path to citizenship for DREAMers through legislative action. Reaching a compromise on legislation is further hampered by the persistent jumbling together of multiple issues for a “comprehensive” reform.

Over the past decade, the rise in hate crimes toward Muslim-Americans is an especially disconcerting development. In 2015, the FBI’s annual hate crimes report found a 6 percent increase, with 66 percent targeting the Muslim-American community. Events last year and preliminary numbers suggest continuation of this upward trend in 2016. Underreporting and a gap in trust between targeted communities and law enforcements implies that these figures are probably lower than they truly are. Senator Durbin has tried to mend this relationship by collaborating with local community leaders and attending Muslim-American conventions.

Fifth Site Visit: Migration Policy Institute

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is global in focus, engaging in comparative analysis across Europe and North America. Examples of current projects include studies on the EU-Turkey deal, asylum reform in Europe, labor market integration, and populism’s role in Brexit.

Labor Market Integration

In comparing different models of labor market integration, the hands-off approach taken by the U.S. is contrasted against Europe’s more interventionist conception of integration. The American idea of integration at different levels of government also emerged in previous discussions, most notably at USCIS. While the U.S. federal government outsources much of its integration efforts to municipal governments and micro-level community organizations, Europeans see the process as requiring top-down policy. Furthermore, U.S. integration operates on a “work first” principle, while Europe’s focus has been on “training first.”

Populism & Brexit

How does populism shape migration and how has migration shaped populist movements? Although these groups do not necessarily enter government, damage can still be inflicted by shifting government discourse rightward. Even more problematic is the perception that elections are a measure of the success or failure of populist movements. Major dilemmas arise in the post-Brexit environment: the ambiguous status of European nationals living in the UK and an altered immigration policy for Europe without Britain. Economically speaking, how does the UK plan to invest in its workforce to fill in the gap created by those leaving?

Asylum Resettlement & EU-Turkey Deal

The UNHCR definition of “refugee” places an emphasis on proving conditions of “persecution.” Germany has expanded that humanitarian program for those who do not fit this narrow definition. In Europe, resettlement of asylum-seekers is a national prerogative; though, the EU exercises influence through funding. After reaching the EU-Turkey agreement, Europe has indeed seen a drop in people coming to Greece by sea via Turkey. However, implementing the deal’s other half—that is, in the reverse direction, returning refugees to Turkey from Greece—is proving to be a gargantuan task. Many are still stuck in a state of limbo as the Greek system continues to be overwhelmed. Failure to address the fundamental causes of why people are leaving Turkey in the first place means that the agreement had been standing on shaky ground from its inception. There are questions whether the deal will still be in place in two years’ time.

With respect to integration, sensitive questions surrounding identity and race drove heated participant discussion. Disparate definitions and connotations of these words between Germany and the U.S. generated disagreements about the value of categorization for research purposes. Ultimately, the impassioned deliberation revealed the importance of arriving at common understandings through attempts to appreciate the reasoning behind different beliefs.