Now more than ever, immigrant integration matters

Just before Thanksgiving we had the opportunity to participate in a Transatlantic Migration Study Tour to Germany, cosponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation-North America and NCLR (National Council of La Raza), the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S. Our group of 10 Latino leaders, most of whom were executives of community-based organizations affiliated with NCLR, visited with government officials, refugee reception centers, human and civil rights activists, and nonprofit organizations in Dusseldorf, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, and Stuttgart.

Our German counterparts were interested in understanding how government and civil society promote the incorporation of newcomers into mainstream society in the U.S., known throughout the world as a “nation of immigrants.” For our part, we wanted to understand how our European colleagues approach the challenges associated with immigrant integration to see what might be applicable to our work in the U.S. Our trip took place against a dramatic backdrop of events—the ongoing migration crisis in Europe, the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, and our own country’s vigorous debate on immigration policy on the eve of a presidential campaign—that heightened the urgency of our visit.

We were struck by the welcoming response that those we spoke with in Germany have to the refugee situation. It was heartening to hear that Germany, a nation of about 81 million people, was willing to accept at least 800,000 refugees this year. By comparison, the U.S., which has a population of over 321 million, has admitted an average of 70,000 refugees annually in recent years, and President Obama’s proposal to accept an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees has been met with a storm of controversy.

What we heard over and over again from German officials and scholars was about the opportunitythe refugees offered to a country that, while prosperous, will soon face a “demographic cliff”—a shortage of young people to fill critical jobs in their growing economy. Like many Americans, they understand the concerns about costs to adequately house and feed the refugees while they learn a new language and upgrade their job skills, but they saw this as an investment in their future.

At a time when too many politicians and pundits in our country wring their hands about burdens of incorporating newcomers without acknowledging the opportunity for future economic growth, or worry about the costs of teaching English and job skills without seeing the benefits that come from these investments, the attitudes we heard from the Germans we met was refreshing.

We also came away from our trip with a renewed belief in the power of the American Dream. We don’t get everything right all the time, but we do have confidence that Americans can meet the challenge of integrating immigrants into the mainstream, because we’ve done it before. In the decennial census in 2010, for the first time in nearly 80 years, the percentage of foreign-born in the U.S. exceeded 12 percent of the U.S. population. That may seem like a significant challenge, but consider this: a hundred years ago, the U.S. experienced six straight decades where the foreign-born population of the U.S. exceeded 13 percent. We successfully incorporated millions of Italians, Slavs, Poles, Jews, and other supposedly “unassimilable” groups into American society, usually over one or two generations.

Today, our organizations are committed to ensuring that our country honors its legacy as a nation of immigrants by helping immigrants integrate into the mainstream. Every day we teach immigrants English, train them to upgrade their skills and find living-wage jobs, and encourage them to naturalize and become U.S. citizens. By doing so, we make another small investment in keeping the American Dream alive for everyone.

Cancela is political director, Culinary Workers Union Local 226;Escobar is senior director of Health and Human Services, CASA; Figueroa is president and CEO, Congreso de Latinos Unidos;Nuñez is executive director, CARECEN; Rodriguez is president and CEO, El Concilio;  Salgado is president and CEO, Instituto del Progreso Latino; Sanchez is founder and CEO, Southwest Key Programs;Soto is executive director, Conexión Américas and chair, Board of Directors, NCLR;Vazquez is senior Immigration legislative analyst, NCLR.