E.g., 04/20/2014
E.g., 04/20/2014

Policy Considerations for Immigrant Integration

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Policy Considerations for Immigrant Integration

Setting the Context

For most of the last century, international migration was an important issue for only a handful of countries. Today, the phenomenon touches the lives of more people and looms larger in the economic, social, and domestic policies and international relations of more nations than at any other time. And there is little reason to believe that the issue will become less prominent in the decades ahead.

A number of factors underlie the issue's importance. One particularly salient set stems from the fact that large and rising numbers of immigrants have been entering advanced industrial societies at the same time that many of these societies have been attempting to cope more effectively with a number of immense social and economic forces. Among them are deep demographic and technological changes and the effects on different segments of society, the labor market and community effects of deeply liberalized trading regimes, large and increasing domestic and worldwide inequality, and most recently, security.

The issues are made even more prominent as these forces come together with seemingly structural economic malaise, necessary but painful changes in social safety nets despite growing needs, burgeoning physical infrastructure demands, and brewing social and cultural crises. Furthermore, immigration and immigrants provide tangible, visible, and convenient proxies and even "lightening rods" for populist expressions of such frustrations. In this context, the very foundations of the social compact on which Western democracy has been built may hang in the balance as governments struggle to manage these tensions.

How Implicated Is Immigration in These Matters?

Immigration's effects are always complex. Few reputable analysts dispute that the overall effects of regulated immigration are positive. More to the point, perhaps, advanced economies demonstrate time and again that, political rhetoric aside, modest levels of unauthorized immigration apparently also serve useful social and economic goals. At the heart of this apparent paradox lies the fact that immigrants typically create opportunities both for themselves and for most members of the communities in which they settle. This general rule of thumb nearly always fails to apply under two sets of circumstances: first, when immigration becomes too "irregular" and disorderly; and second, when receiving communities and their institutions fail to consistently engage in incorporating newcomers, while simultaneously ignoring immigration's effects on the prospects of other marginalized groups. Both circumstances are clearly at play in the street action one sees in several European states and the vigilantism in the U.S. Southwest.

Analysts point to many reasons for the adverse reaction to immigration and immigrants. They range from concerns over job competition and displacement to much more complicated social and cultural fears. One cause, however, seems to be under-explored: immigration's contribution to change, and large-scale immigration's effect on the pace of such change.

Two additional sets of facts associated with current levels and forms of immigration further complicate the governance challenges associated with immigrants. First, immigration has grown sharply higher and immigrant origins have expanded enormously. Second, immigrant groups have begun to spread out from their long-term places of concentration. They have branched out from the largest cities, which at least have had substantial experience with managing successive waves of internal and international migration, to smaller cities, suburban areas, and, increasingly, rural communities. These places are less well prepared to respond to and adjust to the new influxes. (See article by Brian Ray in this issue).

Although these facts complicate the integration effort, they do not make the more traditional emphasis on urgent integration issues any less relevant. These pressing issues are language acquisition, training, and education; labor market and economic incorporation issues; and health care and other critical social services. All three are critical to the well-being of both immigrants and the communities in which they settle. Identifying these issues as the most crucial is not intended to downplay the importance of the longer-term issues of civic engagement and social and political incorporation.

Why Focus on Integration... and Integration by and for Whom?

Successful societies are founded as much on the rule of law and equality in the legal realm as they are on various forms of social partnerships rooted in fundamental principles of equity and fairness. Long-term success for multi-ethnic societies requires sustained attention to at least one additional set of issues: solving the immigrant and minority integration puzzle in ways that fully respect the democratic and associated principles that define these societies.

At a minimum, this challenge requires that the rules on "who belongs" and how public goods are distributed be constantly re-examined. Failure to do so, and to make the necessary adjustments, can give free rein to the centrifugal forces that threaten social cohesiveness by creating different, and by definition unequal, classes of membership.

Simply put, immigrant-receiving societies cannot continue to engage the international migration system without making simultaneous and substantial investments in understanding better and addressing immigration's effects on host communities. The process of understanding these effects better, and devising appropriate responses to them, is an essential element in managing the issue well. It also promotes the associated public policy goals of good governance and social cohesion.

In practice, this translates into the need to treat the cultural, social, political, and economic facets of the local community not just as a "space" in which immigrants just "happen" to live, but as one with which immigrants are always in a dynamic relationship. Put differently, the experiences immigrants have in local settings shape their opportunities just as their presence produces social, cultural, economic, and political changes in the social fabric. It is thus in the receiving society's interest to prepare the ground not only for the immigrants' economic and labor market contributions, but also for their social and political incorporation.

Integration is the process through which, over time, newcomers and hosts form an integral whole

But how should one think of integration in the face of large-scale immigration? In its most general form, integration is the process through which, over time, newcomers and hosts form an integral whole. For this to begin to happen, newcomers must be encouraged—and assisted—to weave themselves into the host community's economic fabric as soon as possible after arrival. In that regard, the first objective of integration should be to enable newcomers to get the fairest possible returns on their human capital investments and thus contribute as early and as fully as possible to community life.

Economic and labor market assimilation, however, is only the starting point of integration. While pursuing effective economic incorporation, newcomers, hosts, and the social, cultural, and political institutions of the receiving community must also engage the much harder task of shaping their now-common space. It is success in this latter task that makes possible the win-win arrangements that underlie successful immigration systems and, by extension, successful multi-ethnic societies. In this construct, meaningful and successful integration draws its very energy from the concept's dynamism, from the very fact that immigration of the scale now being experienced is fundamentally about "becoming," rather than "being."

Focusing on Mutuality

The body of analysis on the socio-cultural incorporation of immigrants is as ideologically and politically burdened as it is massive. One of the most basic conclusions one can draw from it is that immigrants thrive best in socially and politically supportive environments that allow them to change most of their social and cultural traditions at their own pace, while learning and adapting to important community practices more quickly. Doing so, in turn, allows immigrants to build up their confidence and sense of belonging gradually but deeply. At the heart of any successful integration model, however, lies continuous interaction and mutual adjustments and accommodations. A model grounded on equity and mutuality, and a more organic rather than forced pace of adaptation, holds the most promise.

This is not meant to suggest that it is an easy model to implement. The process is burdensome for both parties. Newcomers must learn to negotiate a new and unfamiliar environment while financially supporting themselves and family members in their home countries. They must also contend with the fact that their minority and newcomer statuses make them vulnerable to marginalization and abuse, including human rights violations. The host community, on the other hand, must cope with large influxes of foreigners in its schools, workplaces, housing, public spaces, and neighborhoods.

This two-way integration model is by no means the dominant model of how most newcomers or host populations think they should relate to each other. Both the assimilationist and multiculturalist models are probably both better known and have more passionate adherents.

The emphasis on socio-cultural assimilation, or the one-way adoption of the host society's social and cultural values, for instance, acts more as a barrier to than a facilitator of successful integration and healthy inter-group relations and communities. More to the point, many newcomers—and particularly the activists who work on their behalf-interpret the emphasis on assimilation as fundamentally hostile to them, at least in effect, if not in intent. Pressures to assimilate, in turn, act as self-fulfilling prophesies by sharpening group differences and polarizing perceptions and behavior, rather than diminishing them. The resulting accumulation of perceived "injustices" has the effect of delaying integration and probably reduces the prospects for realizing the kinds of accommodation that focus on and enhance the success of the broader community.

Similarly, an official policy of multiculturalism undermines cohesion and the sense of community, while both the concept and its budgetary implications are of concern to most people. It is also anathema to social and other conservatives, in no small part because it also creates an industry built around special interests. The concept's highly disputed merits aside, multiculturalism becomes a boon to immigration's foes by handing them the rhetorical means with which to shape perceptions of those who may feel ambivalent about immigrants.

Neither of the last two models appears particularly viable at a time when receiving country populations are trying to come to terms with the reality of large-scale immigration.

Public Institutions and Private Sector Cooperation

Given the many knowledge gaps and differences in perspective, the emerging field of immigrant integration must continue to collect and evaluate experiences on how newcomers relate to the communities in which they settle. Researchers must also look at how newcomers' responses to receiving communities help, in turn, to shape their hosts' reactions to immigrants. At the end of the day, however, both parties to the integration process will have to accept responsibility for its outcome and all societal actors and institutions must engage the process with steadfastness.

Everyone has a role to play in this process. Governments at all levels must recognize and embrace their role as setters and overseers of minimum standards, as promoters and financiers of flexible and innovative initiatives, as evaluators of what works and what does not, and as advocates for and enforcers of inclusiveness, fairness, and equality. More will be required, however, because the distribution and allocation of social and public goods must also gradually adjust to the presence of immigrants.

This brings up a much larger issue: how communities live with the consequences of national immigration policy. Ultimately, it is at the local level that practical ideas are tested, adapted, and re-tested. For example, encouraging coherent suburbanization may alleviate inner-city space and housing shortage issues. Immigrant dispersion to mid-sized and smaller cities, as well as rural areas, may allow for wider population distribution and contribute to the social and economic revitalization of the countryside. In order to achieve such goals, however, the national government must constantly coordinate with local governments to assess each region's changing needs and support appropriate policies. By investing intelligently in integration, the state can expect greater social, political, and economic returns from immigration.

The public sector cannot be expected to solve the integration puzzle without relying extensively on and leveraging the resources of the private and non-governmental sectors

Today, however, the public sector cannot be expected to solve the integration puzzle without relying extensively on and leveraging the resources of the private and non-governmental sectors. (See Rinus Penninx's article in this issue.) These sectors—employer and worker groups, church groups, civic, ethnic, and immigrant organizations, private foundations, and the various community-based non-profit entities—typically amass extensive experience with various aspects of newcomer integration and can serve as crucial social resources for immigrants. Altruism and solidarity need not be the main motivations. Many of these organizations are looking for ways to increase their membership, and incorporating newcomers can support that policy objective. This gives these organizations an immediate return on their outreach and integration investments.

Furthermore, immigrant communities are also a future source of strength and support for these non-governmental sectors. Newcomers in search of stability often remain devoted members of the organizations that provided them with services during their difficult transition into the host community.

Tapping into those experiences to strengthen efforts at integration across the board, while working with both immigrants and the broader community, is smart public policy. Such cooperation is at the heart of the virtuous circles so essential to solving difficult social problems. When public institutions and the private sector make joint efforts to adapt positively to newcomers, the gains to both newcomers and the host community grow geometrically as the process of integration advances.


Regardless of how prepared any society may think it is to receive immigrants, it must be much better prepared in the years ahead because immigration levels will continue to increase. Mirror-image demographic forces in the advanced and developing worlds nearly guarantee it. These forces include the need to maintain funding for social support systems as the birth dearth begins to savage the size of the work forces of most advanced industrial societies, increasing skill- and locational-mismatches, and the economic growth imperative. As a result, the stakes will become ever higher. Ultimately, the price will become prohibitive for not doing well enough, or indeed for failing, to assist immigrants to integrate such that both they and the communities in which they settle benefit fully.

Managing integration well starts with the recognition that immigrants are capable of making strong long-term contributions to the communities they enter. The road will not be easy. Each party to the process discussed here is operating with incomplete, and often erroneous, information about the other, and each continues to have a static understanding of itself in what are extremely dynamic environments.

Yet, it is in the constant effort to understand better and break down the walls that separate these communities that long-term societal interests lie. No aspect of this interface is more complex, however, than the absolute requirement that as we try to understand better the "pluribus," we do not lose sight of the importance of the "unum." Put differently, as we study immigration and conceive of and implement initiatives to assist immigrants in incorporating themselves into the host society successfully, we cannot lose sight of the interests and priorities of the broader society.