The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 5, 2015

Who needs data on immigrants?

January 5, 2015

Municipal leaders across the United States are working to welcome immigrant diversity in their communities. Many are taking steps to foster a welcoming culture, promote immigration as a tool for economic development, and better serve immigrant newcomers and their children.

A major challenge to these efforts is a lack of sufficient data about constantly evolving demographics at the local level. For example, efforts to enroll children of immigrants from low-income families into available early education programs are hampered when policymakers don’t know where to find children of immigrants in their community or what languages their parents speak. Programs that encourage legal immigrants to obtain US citizenship can be difficult to implement if staff don’t know how many legal immigrants live in the area. Initiatives to promote training and entrepreneurship require information about the educational backgrounds and skills needs among local immigrant populations.

The Urban Institute’s Children of Immigrants data tool can provide policy-relevant data to support these efforts. For each state and metro, the data tool shows the number of children of immigrants, how many are in low-income families, and where immigrant parents were born.

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Municipal leaders and program staff can also turn to government statistics on immigrants, including information on the number of lawful permanent residents arriving in major cities each year. Other demographic data sources can be found here and here.

Users should be careful, however, of the potential pitfalls of analyzing different datasets, such as limited sample sizes for certain linguistic or national origin groups. This is a common challenge for many localities where new language needs may apply to a small number of residents. Other pitfalls include presence of outliers–particularly rich or particularly well-educated immigrant families, for example–that can skew statistics, or misunderstanding of how government agencies group less-common languages or countries-of-origin into broader categories.

To better serve immigrant and populations with limited English proficiency, we encourage leaders to monitor the linguistic needs of their residents accessing different municipal services, from public schools to business license services; train frontline staff on the importance of collecting accurate data on users; and reach out actively to hard-to-reach groups to learn about unmet needs in their communities.

Part of our core mission at the Urban Institute is to connect local communities and programs to research capacity and knowledge in order to support better decisionmaking. In light of the current dynamic immigration policy context, including the administrative relief recently announced by President Obama, it is crucial that leaders are aware of the available data so that evidence can inform their choices.

For more ideas, here is a recording of our recent webinar on Data Resources and Tools that we presented to the Welcoming Cities and Counties network and here are the slides we presented, which include links to publicly available data sources.

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