Increasing Community Resilience Through Immigrant Incorporation | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin

By Ruth Ellen Wasem

Foreign-born residents of the United States, a record 44.8 million of them as of 2018, make up 14.5 percent of the US population and 17.4 percent of the labor force—fully 28.4 million workers. According to Joint Economic Committee statistics, immigrants and their children account for more than half of the growth of the U.S. workforce over the past two decades.[2]

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Immigrants fuel prosperity and enrich America's cultural life, making the nation more vibrant and more resilient. Policies that support immigrant incorporation would not only strengthen the U.S. but help it rebound faster from the COVID health emergency and ensuing economic recession.

Disproportionate Impact of COVID on Immigrants

Recently published analysis finds that foreign-born workers are more likely than native-born workers to be employed in "essential critical infrastructure" sectors as designated by the Department of Homeland Security, 69 percent and 65 percent respectively. They are primarily found in two critical sectors—health care providers and the food supply chain. Foreign-born workers account for 38 percent of home health aides, 29 percent of physicians, and 23 percent of pharmacists. 22 percent of workers involved in the U.S. food supply chain, approximately 2.1 million of them, are also foreign born. These include 37 percent of meat processing workers, 30 percent of workers in commercial bakeries, and 30 percent of agricultural workers. About three-quarters of unauthorized foreign nationals in the labor force are classified as essential.[3]

Immigrants are over-represented in the biomedical sector, making up 22 percent of scientific researchers in fields that pertain to treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. As of 2018, almost 40 percent of U.S. medical and life scientists were foreign-born, and nearly 30 percent of chemists and material scientists. From 2010 to 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor approved more than 11,000 hires of temporary foreign workers at the eight major U.S. companies researching coronavirus cures and treatments.[4]

A growing body of research finds that immigrant incorporation increases social cohesion, yielding positive outcomes for both native- and foreign-born residents.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on immigrants when it comes to job losses. Historically, immigrant males were more likely to be employed than native males. This changed in April 2020, when service occupations, in which foreign-born workers are overrepresented, reached unemployment rates of 27 percent, the highest of any occupational category.[5]

Foreign-born residents who are not naturalized U.S. citizens—that is, lawful permanent residents, legal temporary residents, and unauthorized residents—have long faced legal and practical barriers to receiving health insurance, supportive services, and public assistance. Recent regulations promulgated by the Trump administration have had a chilling effect on immigrants seeking benefits such as Medicaid, for which they are eligible. Some did not apply for them, lest they draw attention to family members who are unauthorized residents. Concerns that immigrants would not seek testing and needed medical care were such that the U.S. District Court of New York enjoined implementation of this new rule during the pandemic.[6]

COVID relief legislation—the Cares Act of 2020—expressly barred immigrant families with an unauthorized family member from receiving stimulus payments. An estimated 6.2 million essential workers (with 3.8 million children who are U.S. citizens) were denied payments under this rule because they either were unauthorized or were filing jointly with one of the estimated 5.5 million unauthorized residents who work in jobs deemed essential.[7]

Immigrant Incorporation is Key to Resilience

A growing body of research finds that immigrant incorporation increases social cohesion, yielding positive outcomes for both native- and foreign-born residents. How well immigrants adapt to this is highly dependent on their starting points—the racial and ethnic groups they belong to, their legal status, social class, and the geographic area into which they integrate. Both native- and foreign-born residents participate in the societal dynamic of incorporation, and governmental policies can support or limit immigrants' feelings of acceptance and belonging.[8]

Overall, the impact of immigration is a net positive for job creation and economic growth, although the wages of U.S. workers may flatten in some instances. Concerns that immigrants displace native workers are countered by research showing immigrant workers are more often complementary rather than competitors. A quarter of new U.S. businesses are started by immigrants. Nationwide, three million immigrant entrepreneurs employ almost 8 million American workers. Immigrants' spending power—estimated to be $9.3 billion in 2014—helps fuel aggregate demand and economic growth.[9]

A growing body of research reveals the many ways that immigrants have revitalized American cities and towns since the 1965 Immigration Act removed the racial and national quotas that had been in effect since the 1920s. Immigrants have repopulated abandoned neighborhoods and reopened storefront businesses in dormant commercial areas. After years of crippling divestment, job loss, and crime, large American cities are once again hubs for the national economy, with lower crime rates and prime real estate. Some attributed this revitalization to an elite, creative class of young professionals, who began to returning to cities in significant numbers in the 1990s. A.K. Sandoval-Strausz's case studies of Chicago and Dallas, however, find this reversal is largely due to Latin American immigrants. Jackelyn Hwang's analysis of 23 major U.S. cities found that Asian and Hispanic immigrants formed "global neighborhoods" that spurred gentrification in some neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves in others.[10]

Federal law controls the legal landscape of immigration, but the particulars of a locale often drive immigrant incorporation. Abigail Fisher Williamson explores why and how local governments across the country are taking steps to accommodate immigrants, sometimes in the face of formidable opposition. Manuel Pastor and John Mollenkopf also emphasize the importance of local leadership in shaping attitudes and responses to immigrants.[11]

Civic engagement is a core component of immigrant incorporation that is promoted by interactions with elected officials and helpful neighbors, volunteer work with community groups, and discussions of political topics with family, friends, and colleagues. Michael Jones Correa has done several studies of immigrant integration; his most recent found that immigrants were more civically engaged in 2017 than in earlier years. The penultimate of civic engagement is naturalization, and then voting. Naturalization produces a host of positive results, such as increased wages, better job opportunities, and an enhanced sense of security.[12]

Key Policy Reform is Needed at the Federal and Local Levels

To ensure successful immigrant incorporation, efforts should be made at both the federal and the local levels. Only the federal government, specifically the U.S. Congress, has the power to remedy the issues pertaining to immigrants' legal statuses, authorization to work in the United States, eligibility for federal services, and criteria for naturalization. Local governments are better situated to improve the social integration of the immigrants, ensure access to educational assets (e.g., schools, libraries, and community centers), and encourage naturalization.

Although comprehensive immigration reform is the mantra across the coalition of immigration advocates who work in ethnic communities, business groups, labor unions, and religious organizations, the experience of the COVID pandemic has lifted several policy options to the top of the list. The first would be to offer lawful immigration status to unauthorized foreign nationals who worked in essential jobs during the national health emergency. The second would be to relax the bars that prevent lawful permanent residents from receiving means-tested federal assistance. Both options are imperfect and fail to address the extent of the problems with current immigration law, but they would be strategic starting points to move comprehensive immigration reform forward.

Two other important immigration reform provisions are "low-hanging fruit" for lawmakers supporting immigrant incorporation. One would provide lawful permanent residence to foreign nationals brought to the United States without legal status as children (also known as DACA) who meet specified conditions. The other would enable certain international students who graduated from U.S. institutions with advanced degrees in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics to qualify for lawful permanent residence.

Civic engagement is a core component of immigrant incorporation that is promoted by interactions with elected officials and helpful neighbors, volunteer work with community groups, and discussions of political topics with family, friends, and colleagues."

An option that would certainly foster immigrant incorporation would be the elimination of the $1,600 fee that lawful permanent residents must pay to apply for naturalization. Encouraging and supporting naturalization is clearly in the national interest. Using appropriated funds to cover the adjudication costs of citizenship applications is a straightforward way to support naturalization.[13]

At the local level, there is much that municipal governments and community organizations can do to foster immigration incorporation. Research I led with LBJ graduate students in Dallas, Texas, resulted in three recommendations for local policymakers:

  • To exercise leadership on immigrant incorporation
  • To promote policies fostering economic development and civic engagement among immigrants
  • To support programs that enhance education outcomes, neighborhood livability, and access to legal, health and human services for immigrant communities.[14]

In sum, the public policies that aim to incorporate immigrants boost resiliency for all residents, native and foreign born.

 

Ruth Wasem is professor of practice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.


[1] In this essay, the term immigrant is used generically to include foreign born people who are lawfully permanent residents, legal temporary residents, and unauthorized residents.

[2] Joint Economic Committee. "Immigrants, the Economy, and the COVID-19 Outbreak." U.S. Congress. June 30, 2020. https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/9e9c9042-6ff9-4f6c-8d65-fbe2625d2143/immigrants-the-economy-and-the-covid19-outbreak-final1.pdf (last accessed October 16, 2020).

[3] Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren. "U.S. Foreign-Born Workers in the Global Pandemic: Essential and Marginalized." Journal of Migration and Human Security, September 2020; Joint Economic Committee. "Immigrants, the Economy, and the COVID-19 Outbreak." U.S. Congress. June 30, 2020. https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/9e9c9042-6ff9-4f6c-8d65-fbe2625d2143/immigrants-the-economy-and-the-covid19-outbreak-final1.pdf (last accessed October 16, 2020).

[4] David J. Bier. "Immigrants Aid America During COVID-19 Crisis." Cato Institute, March 23, 2020. https://www.cato.org/blog/immigrants-aid-america-during-covid-19-crisis (last accessed Oct. 16, 2020); Julia Gelatt. "Immigrant Workers: Vital to the U.S. COVID-19 Response, Disproportionately Vulnerable." Migration Policy Institute. April 2020.

[5] George Borjas and Hugh Cassidy. "The Adverse Effect of the COVID-19 Labor Market Shock on Immigrant Employment." IZA Institute of Labor Economics Discussion Paper 13277, May 2020; Joint Economic Committee. "Immigrants, the Economy, and the COVID-19 Outbreak." U.S. Congress. June 30, 2020. https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/9e9c9042-6ff9-4f6c-8d65-fbe2625d2143/immigrants-the-economy-and-the-covid19-outbreak-final1.pdf (last accessed October 16, 2020).

[6] Ruth Ellen Wasem. "Noncitizen Eligibility for Federal Public Assistance: Policy Overview and Trends." U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Greenbook, September 24, 2014. https://greenbook-waysandmeans.house.gov/sites/greenbook.waysandmeans.house.gov/files/RL33809_gb.pdf (last accessed October 16, 2020); Hamutal Bernstein, Jorge González, Dulce Gonzalez, and Jahnavi Jagannath. "Immigrant-Serving Organizations' Perspectives on the COVID-19 Crisis." Urban Institute. August 2020. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/immigrant-serving-organizations-perspectives-covid-19-crisis (last accessed October 16, 2020); and Samantha Artiga and Matthew Rae, "Health and Financial Risks for Noncitizen Immigrants due to the COVID-19 Pandemic." KFF Issue Brief. August 18, 2020. https://www.kff.org/report-section/health-and-financial-risks-for-noncitizen-immigrants-due-to-the-covid-19-pandemic-issue-brief/ (last accessed October 16, 2020).

[7] Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren. "U.S. Foreign-Born Workers in the Global Pandemic: Essential and Marginalized." Journal of Migration and Human Security, September 2020.

[8] Mary C. Waters and Marisa Gerstein Pineau. The Integration of Immigrants into American Society. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. National Academies Press (2015).

[9] Francine D. Blau and Christopher Mackie (editors). The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. National Academies Press (2017); Joint Economic Committee. "Immigrants, the Economy, and the COVID-19 Outbreak." U.S. Congress. June 30, 2020. https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/9e9c9042-6ff9-4f6c-8d65-fbe2625d2143/immigrants-the-economy-and-the-covid19-outbreak-final1.pdf (last accessed October 16, 2020); and New American Economy. "Taxes and Spending Power." https://www.newamericaneconomy.org/issues/taxes-spending-power/ (last accessed October 16, 2020).

[10] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class. Basic Books, 2002; John H. Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor. "The Ethnic Mosaic: Immigrant Integration at the Metropolitan Scale," Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration. Cornell University Press. (2016). A. K. Sandoval-Strausz. Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City. Basic Books (2019); and Jackelyn Hwang. "Pioneers of Gentrification: Transformation in Global Neighborhoods in Urban America in the Late Twentieth Century." Demography, v. 53, n.1, February 2016.

[11] Abigail Fisher-Williamson. Welcoming New Americans? Local Governments and Immigrant Incorporation. University of Chicago Press. (2018); John H. Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor. "The Ethnic Mosaic: Immigrant Integration at the Metropolitan Scale," Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration. Cornell University Press. (2016).

[12] Micheal Jones-Correa, "The Kindness of Strangers: Ambivalent Reception in Charlotte, North Carolina," Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration. Cornell University Press. (2016); and James A. McCann and Michael Jones-Correa. Holding Fast: Resilience and Civic Engagement Among Latino Immigrants. Russell Sage Foundation. 2020.

[13] Thai V. Le et al., "Paths to Citizenship: Using Data to Understand and Promote Naturalization," USC Dornsife Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (January 2019) https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/731/docs/PathsToCitizenship_Full_Report_CSII.pdf (last accessed July 20, 2020); and Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, and Giuseppe Pietrantuono, "Naturalization Fosters the Long-Term Political Integration of Immigrants," PNAS 112, no. 41 (October 2015).

[14] Els de Graauw and Irene Bloemraad, "Working Together: Building Successful Policy and Program Partnerships for Immigrant Integration." Journal of Migration and Human Security, v.5, n. 1, 2017; and Ruth Ellen Wasem, (director) Welcoming Communities: Immigrant Incorporation in Dallas, Texas. The University of Texas at Austin. August 2020. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/82248 (last accessed October 16, 2020)