With Open Arms: Supporting Our Newest Neighbors

By Erin Ewart, education consultant –

America has long been a nation of immigrants.

Yet attitudes and support for new arrivals to our country have shifted over the years. Some Americans viewed President Obama’s recent executive action on immigration reform as a welcome and much needed step, while others found it deeply controversial.

The debate over immigration reform often fails to address the key services and supports immigrants need to successfully transition to life in the United States. This is a particularly important focus here in Washington State, where between 2000 and 2011, our percentage of foreign-born residents grew by 48 percent, giving us the ninth largest immigrant population in the nation.

If we consider immigration to be a critical part of the American way of life and the pathway to the American dream, what can we do to help new arrivals to our country make a successful transition? And in our own community, home to one of the country’s fastest growing immigrant populations, how can we ensure that we are providing the opportunities and access to help immigrants succeed and thrive?

Education + Jobs = Immigrant Success

Education and jobs are the two key ingredients in this equation. Immigrant families often live in lower-income communities that are more likely to be served by poor or even failing schools, and immigrant students face numerous language and cultural barriers. In Washington State, just 11 percent of English Language Learner (ELL) students received any bilingual instruction in 2010, even though research shows that these programs help to close the achievement gap. Creating strong schools and relevant educational programming for immigrant communities will provide a long-term foundation for success.

In addition to this focus on public education, job training programs provide a bridge to the workforce, helping immigrants launch meaningful and successful careers so they do not remain reliant on unskilled, unsteady, and often low paying jobs. Approximately 30 percent of immigrants hold at least a Bachelor’s degree in their home country, yet many of these skilled workers lack knowledge and skills specific to working in the U.S. job market. As a result, they are shut out of many jobs for which they are qualified. . Job training programs aim to fill this gap by providing targeted education and skill-building along with connections to employers seeking talent.

Local Organizations Proving What’s Possible

Since moving to Seattle nine months ago, I have been lucky to encounter a number of organizations doing great work to support local immigrants in their transitions. These organizations are leading the way and providing successful examples that should be expanded or replicated.

  • For children, programs such as dual-language immersion programs in schools and specialized curriculum designed for English Language Learners can ensure that immigrant students gain English proficiency while still maintaining fluency and appreciation for their heritage language. A number of Spanish immersion programs exist Washington State, and recently the Highline School District started the state’s first Vietnamese dual-language program in support of the goal of making sure all its students are bilingual and biliterate by 2026. These programs are supplemented by tutoring programs targeted at immigrant communities such as those offered through Seattle’s Youth Tutoring Program, and through nonprofit organizations such as One World Now, which celebrates foreign cultures and provides language study, leadership development, and study abroad programs for underserved youth.
  • For teens and young adults, programs that provide job skills training and structured internships serve as a critical bridge from school to building a successful career. Programs like Year Up, which provides low-income young adults with hands-on skill development, college credits, and corporate internships, are changing trajectories for thousands of young people each year. These programs provide practical training in hard skills needed in the workplace, as well as the softer skills immigrants need to succeed in the U.S. job market, such as communication norms, teamwork, and interview preparation.
  • For adults, there are numerous programs that provide specialized job training for immigrants and refugees, such as Project Feast, which empowers immigrants from around the globe by equipping them with the hands-on vocational training to prepare for culinary careers, and Upwardly Global, which helps educated and skilled immigrants and refugees overcome barriers to professional employment through job training and mentoring. These programs ensure that immigrants can use the skills and talents they already possess to find meaningful employment in their new community.

These are just a few examples of the programs that exist locally to support immigrants in their transitions. To learn more or find out how you can get involved, visit the websites of the organizations above or Seattle’s Department of Immigrants and Refugees, and read more about the impact of education and job training programs in this report by the Seattle Jobs Initiative.