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OPINION: How Integration Efforts Help Immigrants Make America Home

Since September 12, a network of non-profit organizations and local governments has been celebrating Welcoming Week, an event to celebrate American communities, including immigrants, under the theme “Creating Home Together.” As an immigrant who has navigated two differing cultures simultaneously in the United States, the meaning of home and belonging is something I hold dear, and I am certain it means a lot to many of my immigrant friends.

My family moved to the United States from Nepal in 2004 on a Diversity Lottery Visa when I was 16 years old. The Diversity Visa Program is available to nationals from countries that have low rates of immigration to the United States, legally defined as those with less than 50,000 nationals admitted over the last five years. Each year the State Department offers 50,000 visas for the lottery, which are drawn from a random selection of applicants from those countries who meet strict eligibility requirements. The year my family immigrated to the United States, there were 4,259 diversity visa lottery winners from Nepal. Unfortunately, the State Department does not have an orientation program for winners to meet each other or gain knowledge about their new home, so you are largely left on your own to navigate a new country.

Integrating in the United States and creating a new home, with a culture, language, and history vastly different than the one you are familiar with can be difficult. My family’s experience with integration presented several challenges and it was not much different than the norm. A qualitative study of diversity visa winners conducted by Nova Southeastern University in Florida showed that participants usually described their life experiences in the United States post-immigration as difficult and lonely. For my family, isolation was common, and it initially hindered my mother from finding jobs and integrating into American culture, which was driven by a lack of knowledge about the United States and language accessibility.

Unfortunately, this struggle extends beyond my mother’s experiences. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2013 there were 25.1 million people in the United States who were considered Limited English Proficient. Among them, 19% were born in the United States to immigrant parents. These people often struggle with accessing various social services like health services and achieving economic mobility in the United States. A recent survey by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin and the Office of Welcoming Communities and Immigrant Affairs found that 39% of long-term immigrant respondents in Dallas said they could not speak English “well” or “well at all.” Like my parents, many of the respondents completed their education in a foreign country and may not have had the adequate English language skills to professionally succeed in the city.

In my parents’ case, economic mobility and inclusion finally came after a long struggle with learning the English language and the social fabric of the United States through trial and error. That meant my mother having to enroll in English as a second language, or ESL, classes at a local community college and bearing the financial brunt of gaining language skills. Although a joint federal and state partnership adult education program called the English Language for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) exists, it only meets less than 4% of the national need. In the case of my own family’s journey, a lack of orientation about the various social services that existed in the United States meant that we were simply unaware of these types of programs, which is the case for other immigrating families. Moreover, while ESOL classes focus on improved English fluency and employment outcomes, integration success such as navigating available resources and knowledge of U.S. civics and history are not as valued under the current ESOL programming. Similarly, while the ESL classes did eventually equip my mother with basic English literacy, we were largely left on our own to navigate the complex health, social, and educational system of the United States.

Making a home and a community in the United States has been a long journey, filled with difficulties but also triumphs. Triumphs for my parents included learning a new language, getting a secure job, and buying a new home. It was also developing a network of friends, neighbors, and colleagues from all cultures that added to their social fabric and helped them feel at home in a place so far from where they grew up. When they meet new families that have just immigrated, they are excited to share the lessons learned and provide helpful tips.

Improving accessibility to integration programming will benefit the economic and social vitality of the United States as much as it will help immigrant families. Accessibility to English language and other programming that not only help with English literacy, but also with other aspects of integration including skills in tax preparation, U.S. civics and history, digital literacy, and finding other resources, will help families succeed and accelerate their contributions towards this country. BPC’s own research shows that states and localities that have institutions, laws, and policies in place for integration find it easier to integrate immigrants.

A federal, comprehensive immigrant integration program may help the United States to integrate immigrant families, like mine, with less struggle. Currently, the United States lacks a federal program for immigrant integration, leaving the states and local communities to take the lead on integration mechanism for new immigrants. In Canada, however, a government funded organization, Planning for Canada, provides pre-departure families with group orientations, a personalized planning session on settlement, and connections to other Canadian organization for support for immigrants who are newly settling in Canada. A similar program in the United States might ease the struggles of new immigrants who are transitioning into a new life here.

Creating a home for my family in the United States was years in the making. Our struggle was not isolated and many immigrant families I know have felt the same. The difficulty of navigating a new country could have been eased with a bit of orientation and knowledge of how to maneuver the U.S. social structure. My family’s story is one of success, as we have integrated into the social fabric of the United States and made a home for ourselves here. I can tell this is true when I watch my former “Limited English Proficient” mother fluently arguing with Verizon over her monthly phone bill. Is there anything more American than that?

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