U.S. standing on immigrant integration in the hands of senate

The U.S. makes it into the top 10, (Sweden, Portugal, and Canada take the top three spots overall) largely because of our outstanding performance in one of the seven categories surveyed:  civil rights and anti-discrimination laws (we're number one there, tied with Canada) compared to other countries. But MIPEX also finds that the U.S. does a decent job of promoting access to nationality (8th in that category), largely through laws that grant citizenship at birth, reasonable standards for becoming a citizen, and some commitment to helping newcomers prepare for citizenship.  Much of the latter occurs in states, either through educational programs designed to help people prepare for citizenship or community councils and other initiatives that involve immigrants in their new country or help new citizens become full partners in the country they have chosen to call home.

Many of these initiatives are at risk during these times of belt-tightening at the state and federal level.  But as states prepare to slash their budgets in this area (Illinois, a leader in immigrant integration, is reportedly cutting funding for immigrant services by 74% over two years), it becomes even more imperative for the federal government to provide support.  Giving the seed money for integration grants that will fund programs to help teach English and civics courses and prepare legal residents to take the citizenship exam is critical to ensuring that legal permanent residents fully integrate into society through citizenship.

A relatively small investment in the potential of aspiring Americans can pay huge dividends for the United States.  Immigrants are increasingly showing themselves to be entrepreneurs and innovators who help to revitalize communities.  Whether they come on family or employment visas, through the asylum or refugee program, or through other much smaller legal immigration programs, legal permanent residents come to this country with the dream of becoming U.S. citizens and giving back to their adopted home.

The MIPEX survey demonstrates that the U.S. can certainly improve in plenty of areas-family reunification, employment access, the many obstacles to maintaining legal status, and especially the high fees we charge for immigration benefits-but ninth place is not a bad starting point.   This is especially good, given that many European countries and Canada have national immigrant integration strategies, something the U.S. is only now beginning to consider.

The trend toward supporting immigrant integration and the Office of Citizenship, which began in the Bush administration, received a major boost in the FY 2011 Obama administration budget proposal and a slightly bigger boost in the proposed FY 2012 Budget.  The Office of Citizenship has already helped thousands more people prepare to become citizens through Congress's support and it has helped to reinforce the network of excellent state service providers around the country.  Cutting the funding for integration grants now, just when the program is starting to show some benefits is a setback for immigrant integration.

And it is bound to be a setback in the MIPEX scores next time around.  The U.S. has long been a leader in immigration, in part because its policies have embodied the goal of equality for all people, regardless of their country of birth.   MIPEX quantifies those policies, through a complex survey and ranking method that allows us to see our policies in stark terms. Cutting funding for immigrant integration?   That would be a big zero on the MIPEX scale.  More important, it would be a huge loss of human potential, something the U.S. cannot afford to waste.

Mary Giovagnoli is the Director of the Immigration Policy Center (IPC) at the American Immigration Council.