What we need to do to live up to our country’s history of inclusion

Westy_web-copyIn some ways, Americans are very good at integrating immigrants into daily life. After all, we started off as a nation of immigrants, and we remain one: The current U.S. population of roughly 320 million includes 42 million who are foreign born. More than 50 percent of the world’s resettled refugees live here, and when they cross our borders, many are immediately privy to all kinds of opportunities they might not have dreamt of in their countries of birth. We have also opened our arms to the global citizens who so often provide the foundation for our own successes. Without these entrepreneurs and blue-collar dynamos, from the day laborer to the Nobel-prize winning scientist, America would run the risk of losing its competitive edge.

But we can do better. In my recent role as lead counsel for the U.S. assessment on the European Commission’s Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), I encountered data to support the assumption that we can learn a lot from other nations if we aim to build the most just society that is humanly possible. As a professor of social work, I can’t think of any greater ambition.

Out of 38 countries studied in MIPEX, we ranked twelfth in labor market mobility for immigrants, and fourteenth in how we successfully reunite families. Overall, when all eight categories in the study were tabulated, the U.S. was determined to be the ninth best country at integrating immigrants into society. While ninth isn’t bad, our history and our diversity should inspire us to be the global leaders.

A few years ago, I co-chaired a committee convened by then-Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick to put together a New Americans Agenda report on how to best include immigrants and refugees “into the social, civic, and economic life of the Commonwealth.” We developed 131 recommendations offering specific and immediate action–steps in such areas as education, public safety, economic development, health, and refugee assistance. Many of these offer specific opportunities for social workers to play a lead role in serving the increasingly diverse community in which we live and work. Several examples where I believe social workers can have a direct impact:

By advocating for, and then staffing, better refugee case management programs with knowledgeable employees to organize peer support groups, cultural orientations, and forums for the open sharing of cultural traditions with the communities in which refugees settle.

By providing work supports and services to immigrants enrolled in job training programs and facilitate access to apprenticeship programs for immigrants.

By supporting educators to build programs that decrease dropout rates, increase graduation rates, and increase college matriculation rates of immigrant students, thereby better preparing them for success.

These are daunting challenges, and they represent only a few of those that a next generation of social workers will face. The good news is, social workers are smart, adaptable professionals, and schools of social work, like BC, are adding new dimensions to diversity and justice education, while exploring innovative curricula to foster a workforce prepared for the cultural realities of the age. With the right training, I believe our field can demonstrate ways to transform American life, for all who live within our borders. It’s this belief that inspires me to come to work everyday at BC.

I’m lucky–my colleagues here complement my own effort to this end. Rocío Calvo has led one of the nation’s only MSW programs offered in Spanish, as she seeks to build professionals with the knowledge and experience to bridge cross-cultural divides. Maryanne Loughry, a foremost expert on migration and refugee resettlement, joins me in teaching an immersion course on immigrant integration along the Sonora/Mexico border. At BC Social Work’s Immigrant Integration Lab (IIL), of which I am director, we seek to identify benchmarks for the integration of America’s newest residents, while addressing inclusion and exclusion, issues that have long resided in the realm of social workers.

I took a lead role in MIPEX because I believe it makes sense for us, as Americans, to understand where we reside when compared with other technologically advanced democracies and use this information to build the most inclusive culture that we can. I’m hopeful that, through innovative social policy and practice, the one in eight foreign-born Americans can be incorporated into cohesive communities, with accessible and appropriate services. It is up to us, as leaders in the field, to make this happen.

Finding solutions to all of the myriad problems of immigration, of course, will be no easy task. In the U.S. alone, they are perhaps too many to count. Who will create, let alone work in, retirement facilities designed to serve 1.2 million Vietnamese Americans? Where might Haitian Americans turn for their children’s needs, and where does the Somali victim of domestic violence find professional help? Can the high incidence of pre-migration trauma in refugees be mitigated through services provided by school adjustment counselors?

Despite the challenges, I’m optimistic. Solving problems to make the world a better place is what social workers do. Our life’s work has always been to build human security and well-being, and to bring about the kind of change that builds more just societies. Our devotion to this end is a given.

But even more than creating change in the individual communities in which we live and work, I foresee a monumental opportunity to define our nation’s lasting vision of the just society we’ve long called America. The foreign-born currently find themselves thrown into the crucible that is contemporary debate on immigration, and the growing public vitriol against new Americans and would-be Americans compels us to reflect on the most basic of questions: What does it mean to be American?

It’s on us to ensure that, somewhere in the answer to that question, is the unalienable right to live in a nation that was, and continues to be, built on compassionate care, for all people.

Westy Egmont is associate professor of macro practice at BCSSW, and the director of the school’s Immigrant Integration Lab

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