E.g., 04/28/2017
E.g., 04/28/2017

Danger Ahead for Aspiring Citizens as New Federal Workforce Law Is Implemented

Commentary
September 2015

Danger Ahead for Aspiring Citizens as New Federal Workforce Law Is Implemented

City of Bellevue, Washington

As immigrant communities and elected officials prepare to celebrate National Citizenship Day this Thursday, important services that focus on citizenship preparation are in danger of being eliminated as implementation of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) moves ahead at the state and local levels. Funds once directly earmarked for English language and civics instruction have been brought under WIOA’s umbrella, where an employment-focused performance accountability system and poorly conceived regulations threaten to put citizenship-focused services beyond the reach of millions of immigrants and refugees.

For more than 15 years, a special appropriation of up to $75 million was provided annually by Congress to support English and civics instruction for immigrants, helping hundreds of thousands gain the English skills and knowledge needed to meet citizenship requirements, learn their new community’s history and ways, and better integrate with their neighbors and local institutions. WIOA codifies these funds for the first time under a program titled “Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education,” stating that its services “shall include instruction in literacy and English language acquisition and instruction on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and civic participation, and may include workforce training.”

However, in regulations proposed to govern states’ implementation of WIOA, the U.S. Department of Education has adopted a decidedly more restrictive definition, stating at key points in its proposed regulations that the program’s educational services must be delivered in combination with workforce training services. Adoption of this restrictive approach, which flows perhaps from inconsistent language used in the legislation, will prevent states from using these program funds to serve immigrants and refugees who may not need or desire workforce training. Among them, possibly those seeking simply to prepare for naturalization, refugees and other new arrivals seeking basic cultural and system navigation skills upon first entering the United States, or mothers who want to learn more about how to support their children’s kindergarten readiness and school success.

With more than 13 million lawful permanent residents in the United States seeking to make their way along the pathway to citizenship, and potentially millions of others with legitimate learning goals that do not include or rely on workforce training, the authority of states should not be limited in deciding how to best leverage these funds to achieve a range of linguistic, economic, and civic integration goals for their immigrant and refugee residents.

Unfortunately, there’s even more bad news for those seeking to promote citizenship as WIOA’s implementation moves ahead: the administration’s proposed regulations also fail to address if or how essential elements of English and civics services can be measured and incorporated into the law’s all-important performance accountability system. For example, WIOA states that the new English and civics program services should enable adults “to acquire the basic and more advanced skills needed to function effectively as parents, workers, and citizens in the United States” and provide “instruction on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and civic participation.” Quite surprisingly, regulations proposed by the president’s team fail to affirm and incorporate the many instructional goals articulated for the program into their rules regarding the program’s design and accountability frameworks, much less take steps to more generally address the law’s flawed logic that gains in these areas can only be measured by gains in formal education levels.

Serious shortcomings in regulations proposed by the Departments of Labor and Education to implement the integrated English and civics program and other provisions in WIOA are addressed in comments the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) submitted as part of the WIOA rulemaking process. Last spring MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy created a private forum for more than 75 state and local leaders in the adult education and training fields to analyze the proposed regulations and how they might impact existing and future efforts to support the effective integration of immigrants and refugees. The comments MPI submitted benefited greatly from the group’s discussions and address a wide range of failings in the administration’s proposed regulations.

In addition to the wrong direction taken thus far by the administration with regard to English and citizenship services, other critical concerns raised by MPI include the lack of measures to support the provision of parent-focused literacy and integration programs or measures to ensure equitable access for lower-educated and Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals to services provided under the law.

Given the substantial, varied, and largely unmet needs of tens of millions of immigrants for adult education and training supports, the law’s implementation warrants intense scrutiny from all who are concerned with promoting the successful integration of immigrants and refugees.  To help key stakeholders both within and outside the WIOA system understand the high stakes posed by the law’s implementation, in the coming weeks and months the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy will provide a range of resources to inform and support approaches that provide equitable access to WIOA services.

To learn more about these important issues, please join us for a webinar on Monday, September 28 at 3 pm EDT for a discussion of strategies to overcome WIOA’s barriers to access for low-educated and LEP individuals. You can also sign up to receive updates so as not to miss any of the data resources we will be releasing this fall; by comparing sociodemographic characteristics of foreign- and native-born individuals for key states and localities, these data provide an important resource for those seeking to develop local and state service plans that equitably meet the needs of diverse residents.