Invest in Immigrants: Good for States, Good for America

The minority is about to become the majority, and with this change come challenges and opportunities. If we invest in the integration of new Americans, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

According to recent census figures, for the first time in history, children from minority backgrounds make up 50.4 percent of children born in the United States, compared with 49.5 percent who are non-Hispanic white.

The growth in minority births is being driven by the nation's Latino population, which grew by more than 3 percent to 52 million from 2010 to 2011. Latinos now make up nearly 17 percent of the nation's population. Asians were the second-fastest-growing group with a surge of 3 percent to 18 million.

This is not the first time America has changed. Nor will it be the last.

How do we harness the opportunities that lie in this shift?

Michigan is an example of how to proceed.

The Great Lakes State ranks first among the states in production of motor vehicles and parts, and the state's broader manufacturing sector is growing once again after decades of stagnation. Job growth brings steady improvement in unemployment numbers.

But unemployment is still high, and at times like this one would expect an ugly immigration debate in Michigan. Instead, Michigan can brag about bipartisan support for immigrants and immigration, with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder leading the way. He even proclaimed himself "probably the most pro-immigration governor in the United States."

As a former business leader, Snyder understands that the recruitment of a skilled workforce — across the labor market — is nothing without retention of that workforce. At a speech he gave at Chrysler headquarters, he said, "I think we need to go back to what made us a great country, which is encouraging people to stay in the U.S."

Moreover, Snyder has invested political capital in the public policy debate. Snyder launched the Global Michigan Initiative to attract entrepreneurs and foreign talent to live, work, and invest in Michigan.

Snyder also spoke out against efforts to bring Arizona's overreaching S.B. 1070 immigration law to Michigan, and he needs to look no further than southwest Detroit for immigrant-driven revitalization. Known as "Mexicantown," the neighborhood is a model for urban renewal with an accent.

And, when you visit nearby Dearborn, home of the nation's largest Middle Eastern population, you see how the hustle and bustle that comes with immigrant entrepreneurs across the economy is good for everyone.

While Michigan is taking the right steps, Congress can do more to invest in immigrant integration.

Over the past decade, the government has become increasingly aware of the value of speeding the integration of immigrants into our society. In 2002, former President Bush created the Office of Citizenship with a focus on supporting integration of legal permanent residents. Under the Obama administration, the Office of Citizenship has continued to play a key role in immigrant integration by leading grant initiatives that include the promotion of citizenship and demystification of the naturalization process for aspiring citizens.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that between 2009 and 2011, the Obama administration grants helped 49,967 immigrants become citizens. That would be nearly 50,000 new citizens for less than 0.03 percent of the Homeland Security Department's annual budget — the same budget that included $9.1 billion to deport 397,000 immigrants in 2011.

The tiny investment in citizenship grants has an enormous impact on the lives of new Americans and their neighbors. The Economic Policy Institute found the average income level of immigrants who become citizens is 14.6 percent higher than that of noncitizens.

Higher incomes bring higher spending, greater tax revenue and more job creation. And, this doesn't need to cost more federal money. Redirecting a modest amount of dollars from, say, the Border Patrol "blimp surveillance program" would prioritize the incorporation of immigrants into America over a giant helium balloon patrolling our borders.

Or, take the hundreds of millions saved by not having the Border Patrol take naps at the border — when apprehensions are at a record low — and invest that in efforts to help immigrants prepare for the naturalization test.

Investing in the integration of immigrants pays dividends for all Americans.

Our nation's leaders should invest small but significant funding for citizenship and integration. This will send a clear message that immigrants are worth More Than Zero to America.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which led More Than Zero, an online campaign to seek funding for immigrant integration. Noorani has more than a decade of successful leadership in public-policy advocacy, nonprofit management, and coalition organizing across a wide range of issues.

For 30 years, the National Immigration Forum has advocated for the value of immigrants and immigration to our nation. In service to this mission, the Forum promotes responsible federal immigration policies, addressing today's economic and national-security needs while honoring the ideals of our Founders, who created America as a land of opportunity.

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