Ensuring Effective Economic Integration Policy at a Pivotal Moment: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum

Ensuring Effective Economic Integration Policy at a Pivotal Moment Lead Image: Health care professional visiting a patient at home [1]

Immigrants and refugees are and will continue to be crucial to the economic, cultural, and social vibrancy of the United States. The Biden administration has already demonstrated that it has a clear-eyed understanding of this. Since coming to office, President Biden has introduced policies aimed at uplifting newcomers and promoting their integration, such as reversing the previous administration’s reductions in refugee admissions, reviving the refugee resettlement program, and introducing initiatives that enable immigrants to live and work in the U.S.

A recent social media forum hosted by World Education Services (WES) sought to understand the new immigrant integration landscape under the Biden administration and explore how the opportunities it provides can be most effectively utilized. The goal of the conversation was to set the stage for the formidable challenge facing immigrant and refugee advocates in the coming months. After four years of protectionist policies, rapid and focused action will be needed to ensure that these communities find opportunities to contribute their talents to the U.S.

Using the hashtag #ImmigrantsThrive [2], the Twitter chat brought together organizations, advocates, and service providers that each offered objectives, resources, strategies, and tools to identify and tackle the existing barriers and inequities that hinder the professional integration of immigrants in the U.S.

Below are the key topics and insights covered during the discussion:

1. A top priority is to ensure that more internationally trained professionals can overcome unnecessary barriers to the workforce, such as those created by licensing laws.

The Biden administration must tackle the chronic issue of the under- and unemployment of immigrants and refugees. Internationally trained workers possess knowledge and skills that are in demand among U.S. employers; however, these workers are frequently unable to make use of their expertise because of barriers that prevent them from working in their field, such as regulations that restrict access to holders of professional licenses. For example, internationally trained health professionals find that to obtain the medical licenses necessary to practice in the U.S., they must undergo an expensive and time-consuming process that involves repeating large portions of their former training. The cost of this under- and unemployment of immigrants and refugees is significant; the Migration Policy Institute estimates [3] a loss of $39.4 billion in forgone annual earnings among under- and unemployed immigrants with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and more than $10 billion in unrealized taxes.

Participants of the #ImmigrantsThrive Twitter chat highlighted that the Biden administration’s actions in support of immigrants who have prior training and expertise could help to facilitate immigrant economic integration:

In imagining a pathway forward, participants noted the importance of raising public awareness about the barriers to work that immigrants and refugees face:

Greater public awareness could encourage more states to adjust the laws regulating access to professional licenses, and thereby enable more immigrants and refugees to make use of their skills. A case in point is the recent action around health care licensing. Recognizing the strain that COVID-19 was placing on hospital personnel and the licensing laws that prevented many internationally educated health professionals from lending a hand, the governors of six states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, and New York—issued executive orders [8] adjusting medical licensing requirements to extend a way for these professionals to practice on a temporary basis. More than 1,000 internationally trained medical professionals have since applied for licensure in New Jersey. Twitter chat participants remarked on the ongoing need to address the issue, particularly in the health care field, to support current initiatives like the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout:

2. Changing the narrative around immigrants will be key to advancing immigrant integration. It also ties into broader efforts to support racial equity.

While the success of a presidential campaign that ran on a pro-immigrant platform is a promising indication of the U.S. population’s overall support of immigrants and refugees, anti-immigrant sentiment, something that has long plagued American society, will persist. What is needed to generate widespread support for a policy of economic integration, participants said, are pro-immigrant narratives and storytelling that reflect the myriad contributions of immigrants and refugees.

The Biden administration has demonstrated a clear understanding of the importance of tone and narrative in its communications on immigrants and immigration. In a fact sheet [14] released by the White House on February 2, the administration announced the creation of several immigration-focused task forces, noting President Biden’s belief “that immigrants are essential to who we are as a nation and critical to our aspirations for the future.”

The administration’s early pro-immigration rhetoric was described by Twitter chat participants as an encouraging sign of a more long-lasting commitment to shifting the narrative, and as a harbinger of more meaningful policy change in the future:

To ensure that immigrants do thrive, it will be crucial to relate their stories and amplify their voices, allowing their perspectives, contributions, and experiences to be widely known:

This work is inherently tied to broader calls to promote racial justice and equity in our society. Immigration narratives can help communicate the common humanity of people and experiences, and tackle the pernicious effects of racism and bigotry more broadly:

3. Federal leadership in the area of immigrant integration policy will be key to its widespread adoption in states and locales across the U.S.

One of the issues explored in the Twitter chat was the Biden administration’s decision to reestablish a White House Task Force on New Americans [28], which will work to promote the integration of immigrants and refugees. When asked to consider the value of federal leadership in immigrant integration and inclusion initiatives, participants emphasized the importance of the example set at the national level to efforts aimed at related initiatives at the state and local levels:

In the order establishing the task force, the heads of relevant government agencies were tasked with conducting a top-to-bottom review of recent regulations, policies, and orders to “identify barriers that impede access to immigration benefits … and make recommendations on how to remove these barriers.” Twitter chat participants were encouraged by the opportunity that this review offers to comprehensively address barriers to economic integration that immigrants and refugees face, and they called attention to specific action items they hope will be addressed:

4. The government will need to adopt flexible and holistic funding models to push forward immigrant integration initiatives.

To support key initiatives for immigrant and refugee integration, such as English language learning, skills development programs, and effective workforce development programs, the federal government should adopt a nimble approach to program funding and partner with organizations and service providers that directly engage with the immigrant communities they seek to serve.

Flexible funding structures, such as the solicitation of requests for proposals (RFPs) for shorter-term projects and the ability to provide rapid response grants, would enable the federal government to quickly allocate funds to emerging action areas—granting the government a degree of agility that 2020 revealed is needed to support immigrants and refugees. The COVID-19 pandemic’s rapid and disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, in particular immigrants and refugees, caused funding priorities to change in a matter of months.

Flexible funding terms allowed the WES Mariam Assefa Fund to quickly realign its funding priorities [38] at the onset of the pandemic to address immediate action areas, such as the need for translation services to enable key health information about the pandemic to reach immigrant and refugee communities.

Further, by partnering with organizations dedicated to serving a specific community, the federal government will be able to maximize its impact, tailoring programming to meet the needs of particular communities, thereby reaching people that they otherwise could not:

5. Refugee resettlement programs will need to be carefully reimagined and reconstructed, both in terms of the number of refugees admitted and the supports refugees receive on arrival.

The Biden administration has pledged to raise the annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 [40], a necessary step forward after the record low numbers of refugee admissions under the previous administration. However, it is important that this action is complemented with a provision of supports that will help refugees overcome the many obstacles they commonly face. For example, refugees need to be equipped upon their arrival with specific foundational tools that will set them up to establish successful lives in the U.S. These tools include language skills, U.S. work authorization, and affordable health care. The Biden administration should invest in service providers, such as resettlement agencies, to ensure that they are able to support the successful integration of refugees:

Participants went on to identify specific action items the Biden administration must address to support effective refugee integration:

The recent federal approval of a third COVID-19 vaccine promises to accelerate the arrival of the long hoped for economic recovery in the U.S. Immigrants and refugees will have an important role to play in the recovery, just as they have had in the fight against the coronavirus. Ensuring the effective economic integration of these communities will be necessary not only to powering the economic comeback in the U.S., but to empowering immigrants and refugees professionally, helping them to pursue opportunities to establish stable, prosperous lives while they contribute to their new communities.

We acknowledge the following organizations and higher education institutions which participated in our recent Twitter chat and helped to make it a success.

Participating organizations:

Individuals from the following organizations and higher education institutions also participated:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).