Photo credit: “Day of Cit Finals 29” Korean Resource Center via Creative Commons

Striving for a Pro-immigrant America

The White House takes positive first steps toward building welcoming communities for new Americans

by Erin Oshiro

The White House last week released a new action plan on how communities across the nation can do better to welcome immigrants and refugees. By successfully bringing together newcomers and long-time residents of communities, the Administration hopes to “foster greater understanding, promote inclusiveness, speed economic success and build secure, vibrant and cohesive communities.”

The plan was drafted by the White House Task Force on New Americans, which President Obama created in November 2014 as part of his broader executive actions on immigration. The new action plan contains recommendations that will be put into effect by various departments and agencies. It includes a strategy to: build welcoming communities; increase naturalization and promote civic engagement; support skill development, entrepreneurship and small business growth; and assist new Americans in accessing English-language classes.

More than 60 percent of Asian Americans are foreign born, and as new Americans, successful integration programs are a high priority. It’s particularly crucial the federal government puts this strategy into action because Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations are emerging in non-gateway regions such as Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia. These programs could promise new Americans receive a more welcoming and inclusive experience moving forward.

We hope the White House will keep AAPI communities in mind as they move forward in making this plan a reality. Here’s a few ways the new plan could help AAPIs:

Eliminate barriers to naturalization:

The Task Force’s plan has over a dozen recommended actions for encouraging naturalization and civic engagement. Well over a million AAPIs — including nearly 300,000 Filipino Americans

are eligible to naturalize but individuals often face barriers that discourage them from applying for citizenship.

Steps such as increasing fee waivers, allowing naturalization applicants to pay application fees with credit cards, and putting more information and tools online will certainly help many more eligible immigrants take the necessary steps toward obtaining citizenship. Each year, Advancing Justice | AAJC’s partners, like BPSOS Houston and Center for Pan Asian Community Services in Atlanta, help hundreds of AAPIs master the English skills and civics lessons they need to successfully apply for citizenship. We hope the Task Force’s efforts will bolster the critical work already happening in local AAPI communities across the country.

Increase support and services for newly resettled refugees

Many AAPIs came to the U.S. as refugees. Between 1975 and 2006, the U.S. admitted over 1.3 million — or nearly half of all refugees — from East Asian countries. In recent years, the majority of refugees coming to the U.S. were from Burma and Bhutan. Like many refugees, these newer community members have struggled to adapt to their new lives in America. Increasing support and services for newly resettled refugees is key to their long term well-being.

As part of the Task Force’s plan, the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) will launch a “Refugee AmeriCorps Program” to help refugees resettling in the U.S. CNCS will also work to increase recruitment of former refugees to become AmeriCorps members. Advancing Justice | AAJC encourages CNCS to include AAPI former refugees in its recruitment efforts in order to draw upon their deep experience and knowledge.

Help foster entrepreneurship across the income spectrum

AAPIs have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. The most recent data shows that AAPIs own over 1.5 million businesses, which generated more than $500 million in receipts in 2007. But even while many AAPIs are successful business owners, we know that many community members struggle in poverty and there are significant wealth disparities among ethnic groups.

For example, 1 in 4 Hmong Americans lives below the federal poverty line, a rate that exceeds that of Latinos and African Americans. And 1 in 5 Cambodian Americans and Bangladeshi Americans live in poverty.

As the Task Force tackles issues related to economic integration, we hope the Administration will be inclusive in its outreach and activities. For example, the plan says the Small Business Administration (SBA) will create a new toolkit in English and Spanish to help underserved immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs. Advancing Justice | AAJC strongly encourages SBA to translate the toolkit into the top Asian languages as well. Similarly, we hope SBA will include AAPI business owners in its new “Made It in America” campaign, which will promote successful immigrant entrepreneurs who have benefited from SBA’s resources.

Expand access to English-language education

Approximately one-third of AAPIs are limited English proficient (LEP) and about 71 percent of Asian Americans speak a language other than English at home. Increasing access to affordable quality English language classes for adults and children is incredibly important to AAPIs. Immigrants know that mastering English has significant long-term benefits, especially for economic success and civic engagement. But too many community members do not have access to the support they need to learn English. The Task Force will work toward expanding opportunities for linguistic integration and education, including providing more resources to immigrants, as well as educators and other service providers, and finding ways to make programs for English learners more effective. We commend the Task Force for taking action to support linguistic integration.

What can you do?

The White House wants to hear from you as the administration moves forward with this ambitious plan. For example, what types of community activities would bring together new Americans and long-time residents? Or, what educational resources could the government develop to help immigrants better integrate? To share your recommendations and best practices for integration, visit the administration’s online tool for collecting information and ideas.

If you have a story about your experiences integrating, share it with us.

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