The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 4, 2015

How communities can support immigrant families

When immigrants are able to fully participate in the economic and social life of their adopted country, it benefits them and their communities. This integration—or, more broadly, this immigrant mobility—gives immigrants and their children the opportunity to improve their lives.

Immigrant integration is as strong now as it was in earlier eras, according to a recent National Academies study, but many immigrants find their progress blocked by barriers to education, training, and support services. These barriers keep many immigrant families from achieving self-sufficiency and prosperity, which can have social and economic costs for the country.

To promote immigrant mobility by identifying promising practices, key policy levers, and priorities for future research, the Urban Institute convened over 30 representatives from federal agencies and the White House, local offices of immigrant affairs, immigrant-serving organizations, and foundations to discuss this critical issue.

This is what we learned:

  • Peer learning is important: Roundtable participants shared examples of promising practices and programs in communities across the country. They offered examples of valuable peer learning already taking place: efforts to link immigration advocacy and workforce development communities, share local welcoming practices among states and localities, and disseminate effective employer engagement practices. They noted, however, that different contexts may need different strategies.
  • Under-recognized interventions could be scaled up: Many successful integration efforts are highly local, serving immigrants in a particular neighborhood or community, and often fall outside traditional organizational structures and funding streams. Services offered by trusted local providers include small business loans, immigrant adult education, health services, parenting supports, and promotion of immigrant rights through the arts. Roundtable participants were encouraged to consider how to support and broaden these promising efforts.
  • The refugee resettlement program is a good example to follow: Refugee resettlement is the most intentional immigrant integration program that the US government funds. Participants highlighted this program for offering positive models of culturally appropriate, tailored programming that is rooted in immigrant needs and reflects strong public-private partnerships and a whole-family approach. Lack of funding to study these programs has, however, hampered dissemination of promising models.
  • A two-generation approach is critical: Roundtable participants emphasized the importance of supporting immigrant parents and children together to improve well-being. In particular, participants asserted that leveraging immigrant parents’ aspirations for their children is an effective way to incentivize immigrant parents to invest in their own skills, training, and development.
  • Trust is key to delivering services effectively: Trusted organizations include schools, worker centers, and churches, and often address multiple family needs in the same place. Successful interventions have focused first on the most pressing needs for immigrant families, built trust, and then addressed the broader range of family needs. Initial service providers—such as a kindergarten teacher or an immigration lawyer—can help link immigrant families to other resource and services.

Our discussion also pointed to key policy levers that could improve the mobility of immigrant families. The most frequently mentioned included:

  • Eligibility and reporting requirements for federal resources and other services: Complicated forms and implied requirements, such as a social security number, can prevent or discourage immigrants from accessing support systems. Some federal agencies are working to remove unnecessary barriers by providing guidelines and recommendations, although the ineligibility of undocumented immigrants for public benefits remains a challenge.
  • Workforce legislation: The recently passed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which states are now determining how to implement, presents a chance to better connect immigrants to federal workforce and adult education resources. The workforce development community should work with immigrant-serving organizations and immigration policy stakeholders to ensure this promise is borne out.
  • The interaction of local, state, and federal polices: The many successful programs and interventions taking place are constrained by restrictive immigrant-policy climates in some states and cities, as well as by the larger challenges of the immigration policy stalemate at the federal level. In other states and cities, a receptive policy climate is supporting mobility efforts.

Fostering the mobility of immigrants can be challenging. By bringing together researchers, practitioners, funders, and government officials, we can start tackling this complex problem and lay out solutions that leverage lessons from the field and evidence-based research.

Thanks to other Urban Institute researchers who contributed to this work: Erwin de Leon, Devlin Hanson, Molly Scott, Eleanor Pratt, and Charmaine Runes.

A poster with an image of Cesar Chavez and the motto "Si se puede" (Yes we can) is seen at an orientation seminar for illegal immigrants, to determine if they qualify for temporary work permits, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), in Los Angeles, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012. Photo by Reed Saxon/AP

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.