Op-Ed: The border can’t be our only concern. The U.S. needs an immigrant integration policy

A teacher's hands pointing at pictures on a table, and two students writing or holding pens.
Somali students learn English in a newcomer class in Minnesota.
(Tim Post / Minnesota Public Radio)

The thousands of migrants trying to enter the United States at the southern border have sparked a fresh wave of political debate over who should be let into the country and how minors and others seeking asylum should be treated.

Republicans have launched a political blitz against Democrats by painting President Biden as the cause of a so-called surge at the southern border. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress have settled on passing legislation in the House that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of migrants, including “Dreamers” and farmworkers. Neither side is talking about how newcomers should be integrated into American life.

For a nation obsessed with the politics of immigration and the effects immigrants have on society, the U.S. puts very little effort into integration policy. We at least manage to rank in the second tier of countries favorable to immigrants on the Migrant Integration Policy Index, but any help we offer newcomers is patchwork at best; it varies from hostility in some locales to decent programs in others. Many immigrants thrive in America, but their success is, as one 2011 study concluded, “heavily stratified” by “educational and economic resources, racial inequities and legal status.”


Biden’s immigration reform proposal, the U.S. Citizenship Act, could begin to remedy our laissez-faire approach to inclusion. If it were adopted, it would represent a significant scale of investment in developing a national integration policy.

One key provision of Biden’s overhaul would create a national foundation to help coordinate integration efforts with state and local officials and promote citizenship preparation programs among low-income and underserved populations. That alone would improve the scattershot quality of American integration efforts that scholars see as a major problem.

The act would establish a grant pilot program to jump-start integration efforts at the local level and allocate close to $300 million to English training, workforce preparation and naturalization programs — likely the biggest investment of its kind since the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986. It also would commission a study on employment opportunities for immigrants with professional credentials earned abroad. As it stands now, many newcomers never find a way to put their skills and education to use in the U.S.

Accelerating the process of immigrant integration is as good for American society as it is for new arrivals. My own research on refugees shows just how far some of the provisions included in the Biden plan can go.

With a co-researcher, I looked at recent refugees from five nations who arrived in the U.S. with varying skill sets and resources. Our analysis showed that refugees who attended basic English language classes were much more likely to be attending school, and those who took job training courses were more likely to have a job. These simple programs were more important for predicting school attendance and employment than other factors, including country of origin, education levels before immigration and prior occupation. In short, the language and workforce funding in the Biden plan could make a real difference in outcomes for immigrants.

Unfortunately, there are already warning signs that inclusion and integration programs could be abandoned as Congress wades into the politics of immigration reform. The current Republican plan, just like bipartisan immigration proposals in 2007 and 2013, does not contain meaningful integration programs. And in an environment where Republicans are attempting to position Democrats as prioritizing the needs of migrants before those of American citizens, some GOP lawmakers will surely object to any program that serves immigrants.


Nor did Democrats keep integration policy in the first round of immigration legislation they pushed through the House. This may be politically expedient, and there is a chance that it can be fixed later. But more likely, the piecemeal approach Democrats are taking will cause integration and inclusion programs to fall through the cracks.

As the immigration reform debate picks up steam, it’s crucial that policymakers remember that their task is not just to determine whether and how to let people through the door. A sensible immigration system must also address how we want immigrants to interact with American society once they are here.

Francisco Lara-García is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld fellow in the sociology department at Columbia University.