Immigrant Integration In-depth

What is Immigrant Integration?

The Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees describe immigrant integration as "a dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant and cohesive communities. As an intentional effort, integration engages and transforms all community members, reaping shared benefits and creating a new whole that is greater than the sum of its parts."[1]

Another definition used to evaluate immigrant integration success by University of Southern California's Center for Immigrant Integration is assessing "Economic mobility for, civic participation by and receiving society openness to immigrants."

Immigrant integration is multifaceted and includes several components. Most of these components center on immigrants' access to mainstream institutions.

Why is Immigrant Integration Important?

Migration Policy Institutes states that "integration remains one of the most overlooked issues in American governance."[2] Integration of new immigrants has historically been carried out by members of the local community, including family members, community organizations, churches, and to some extent local government. However, immigrant integration has not been a priority on the national and even state level.  In order to have a fully functioning society, not only the system which determines who comes in and stays in the country must be in order, but so must the mechanisms and tools that allow immigrants who are already in the country to function and participate fully in their societies and communities, and to build healthy and valued lives for themselves and their families.  

While immigration reform legislation has been the national topic of discussion for some years, immigrant integration policy is essential--on its own and as part of the immigration reform discussion. 

Components of Immigrant Integration:

Access to Health Care:

Many immigrants lack access to basic healthcare. Almost half of all immigrants are uninsured, compared to approximately 13 percent of all US-Born Citizens.[3] Besides the obvious health problems that can arise, poor health also leads to social and economic consequences. "Unresolved health problems can limit immigrants' ability to maintain productive employment, particularly given that many work in physically strenuous jobs or in jobs in which there is a high incidence of occupational injuries."[4]

Immigrant access to health care ties into the larger heath care reform debate. Public health insurance, such as Medicaid, does not cover undocumented immigrants and temporary visa holders. The State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) was recently expanded under President Obama to include legal permanent residents who are either under 21 years of age or are pregnant. All other legal permanent residents must wait five years after they enter the United States to be eligible for public health insurance.

Many other factors also impact immigrant's access to health care. Since many are uninsured, it is often extremely costly to pay for health care costs. Language barriers also heavily impact immigrants' ability to access quality health care. Overall, because of these obstacles, immigrants are less likely to use medical services than are citizens. [5]


The demographics of the nation's elementary and secondary schools have changed drastically due to immigration. This presents a new level of challenges for schools across the United States. In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of LEP (Limited English Proficient) students in the pre-kindergarten to 12 levels. There has also been an increase in LEP into the second and third generations.[6] One in five children under age 18 in the United States is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant and 10 percent are identified as LEP students. [7] 75 percent of school-aged children of immigrants were born in the United States.[8]

"Because of ongoing residential and school segregation by race, ethnicity, and income, many schools are linguistically segregated." [9] 53 percent of LEP students attend schools where over 30 percent of their classmates are LEP.[10] LEP students are most likely to be concentrated in urban schools that serve primarily low-income and minority students.[11] Also, many LEP students live in linguistically isolated households. A linguistically isolated household is defined as one in which everyone over the age of 14 have limited English proficiency.[12] Linguistic isolation hinders parents from being involved in their children's education.[13]

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), enacted in 2002, "requires that schools identify, teach, and test limited English proficient students using standardized state academic tests."[14] It also mandates that schools facilitate the improvement of LEP students' English skills. NCLB has the potential to improve the education of children of immigrants, however many challenges are also presented, including "assessing the academic progress of LEP students, closing the linguistic gap, expanding immigrant parent involvement, and attracting qualified bilingual or English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers."[15] NCLB outlines what must occur improve the needs of children of immigrants but does not provide means for implementation. Overall, NCLB recognizes that schools can do more for LEP students and demands schools and districts better serve these students.

Access to Labor Markets:

"Access to the labor market remains the nation's most potent integrating mechanism."[16] The United States is highly dependent on immigrant labor, both skilled and unskilled. As our population ages and the baby boom generation retires, immigrants will fill the gaps left in our economy.

While immigrant labor is essential to our economy, immigrants often receive the lowest paying, most dangerous jobs. Twenty percent of low-wage workers are immigrants.[17] "Low-wage immigrant workers are concentrated in these sectors due to a number of factors, including educational background, work history and skills, limited English proficiency, and immigration status."[18] Immigrants need access to job training (for both hard and soft skills) and English language acquisition, as well as cultural orientation, to be fully integrated into the American labor force.[19]

Some immigrants arrive with substantial credentials, having held professional jobs in their country of origin. However, when they arrive in the United States, their skills do not transfer and many are forced to acquire low-paying, unskilled jobs. As of 2001, nearly half of current immigrants enter the United States with 12 or more years of formal education.[20] A system needs to be created to convert foreign credentials or assist skilled immigrants in acquiring the certifications required by United States to continue their profession.

Nationwide, 9.7 percent of immigrants own a business.[21] Immigrants have significantly higher rates of business formation than native entrepreneurs, starting 16.7 percent of all new businesses in the US. An immigrant is about 1.8 percent more likely to own a business than a person born in the US. In 2000, immigrant business owners' income totaled $67 billion and accounted for 11.6 percent of total business income generated in the United States.[22] Besides providing income for themselves, immigrant entrepreneurs provide employment for other immigrants. However, many services available to the self-employed are not available to the immigrant entrepreneur. Legal, non-citizen business owners are not eligible for some federal assistance, such as Small Business Administration (SBA) benefits.[23] The immigrant entrepreneur must be supported as a vital part of the American economy.

Language Access:

Language access services are those that "agencies use to bridge the communication barrier with individuals who cannot speak, understand, read, or write English fluently."[24] Language access laws ensure that Limited English Proficient (LEPs) individuals are able to access programs and services without the cumbrance of language barriers that might prevent them from accessing services at the same rates as other individuals. Local and state laws have been created to mirror federal-level legislation that requires agencies receiving federal dollars to provide LEPS "meaningful access" to services. This legislation dates back to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but was more recently reaffirmed by Presidents Clinton and Bush in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Executive Order 13166 requires that any program or agency receiving federal funds take reasonable steps to facilitate access for LEPS.

Language access services include:

  • Hiring bilingual employees allows agencies to better communicate with their constituents and serve a greater number of people.
  • Providing translation and interpretation services allows those agencies with limited bilingual staff to communicate with those they serve.
  • Translation of key documents and websites eliminate confusion when filling out important applications and understanding programs and procedures.
  • Establishing language access offices help concentrate important information for easier access by those who are LEP.[25]

Providing better access to key services allows immigrants to participate in society at the same level as native citizens. Many companies in the private sector have been successful at providing language access services to their customers, but areas in public sector, such as law enforcement, health care, and social service agencies, have been slow in adopting such services.[26] This has been primarily due to challenges such as limited resources, both in relation to finances and staffing.

Citizenship and Naturalization:

Citizenship promotes stable communities and brings significant social benefits. Since the 1990's, there has been a rise in the number of immigrants who have naturalized. However, there still remain a large number of immigrants who are eligible to become citizens but have not. In 2002, there were approximately 8 million eligible immigrants who had not yet naturalized.[27] Many of these eligible immigrants were LEP, had less than a ninth-grade education, and were low-income.[28] Immigrants are not notified by the federal government when they are eligible to naturalize, thus making many immigrants eligible without their knowledge. The process of naturalization is also long, confusing, and expensive.[29] There are few resources available to legal permanent residents to assist them in becoming citizens. By making the process of becoming a US citizen easier, we will be increasing the number of those who are eligible to participate in the political process.

In partnership with the State of Washington, One America provides access to legal permanent residents to free assistance with citizenship applications through the Washington New Americans Program. WNA holds citizenship days across the state and provides information about the naturalization process, citizenship application assistance (N-400 forms only), and legal review of applications by a volunteer attorney or accredited representative.

Community Safety:

Immigrants resist interacting with local police enforcement for a variety of reasons. They may be unable to speak English and communicate with the officers. Many immigrants are afraid that their immigration status will be discovered when reporting a crime and that they will then be deported. Finally, many immigrants do not understand how the American system of justice works. Even when translated, it is difficult for many immigrants to understand court proceedings.[30]

With the implementation of ICE's 287g program, ICE is allowed to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)-also referred to as Memorandum of Agreement (MOA)-with local governments and contract with state and local police and jail officials to enforce immigration laws. This movement from local policing to enforcement of immigration laws creates more fear within the immigrant community and leads to underreporting of crimes. "Immigrants need assurances that they will not be subject to deportation proceedings if they cooperate with police."[31] Essentially, it is the responsibility of local police to serve and protect all residents. When trust is established between immigrants and local police, the whole community becomes safer as a result.


[1] Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, 2008

[2] Michael Fix, "Immigrant Integration and Comprehensive Immigration Reform: An Overview" Securing the Future: US Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader, ed. Michael Fix (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007) iii.

[3] Leighton Ku and Demetrios G. Papademetriou, "Access to Health Care and Health Insurance: Immigrants and Immigration Reform," Securing the Future: US Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader, ed. Michael Fix (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007) 83-84.

[4] Ku, 83.

[5] Ku, 91.

[6] Fix, xxii.

[7] Julie Murray, et al., "Educating the Children of Immigrants," Securing the Future: US Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader, ed. Michael Fix (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007) 125, 129.

[8] Murray, 127.

[9] Randy Capps, et al., The New Demography of America's Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2005) 2

[10] Capps

[11] Fix, xv.

[12] Murray, 133.

[13] Murray, 133.

[14] Fix, xiv.

[15] Murray, 141.

[16] Fix, xix.

[17] Randolph Capps, et al., "A Profile of the Low-Wage Immigrant Workforce: Key Findings" (Washington D.C: The Urban Institute, 2003)

[18] National Immigration Law Center, "Facts About Immigrant Workers," April 2007

[19] Amy Beeler and Julie Murray, "Improving Immigrant Workers' Economic Prospects: A Review of the Literature," Securing the Future: US Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader, ed. Michael Fix (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007) 110.

[20] Beeler, 116.

[21] Robert Fairlie, "Estimating the Contributions of Immigrant Business Owners to the U.S. Economy". SBA Office of Advocacy. November 2008

[22] Ibid.

[23] Beeler, 121.

[24] Migration Policy Institute, Language Portal: A Translation and Interpretation Digital Library

[25] Ibid.

[26] Annie E. Casey and Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, "Bridging the Language Gap: Public and Private Sector Strategies for Communicating with Limited English Proficient Individuals" (2007).

[27] Fix, xxi.

[28] Fix, xxi.

[29] Janet Murguia and Cecilia Munoz, "From Immigrant to Citizen," Securing the Future: US Immigrant Integration Policy, A Reader, ed. Michael Fix (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2007) 13.

[30] Robert C. Davis and Edna Erez, "Immigrant Populations as Victims: Towards a Multicultural Criminal Justice System," National Institute of Justice

[31] Anita Khashu, The Role of Local Police: Striking a Balance between Immigration Enforcement and Civil Liberties (Washington D.C.: Police Foundation, 2009) 23.


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