E.g., 06/30/2024
E.g., 06/30/2024
Integrating Immigrant Youth: Transatlantic Perspectives

Integrating Immigrant Youth: Transatlantic Perspectives

Over the past two decades, the integration of immigrant youth has emerged as a pressing yet controversial issue in public debates around the world. Riots that shook many European cities—Paris in 2005, Athens in 2008, London in 2011, and Stockholm last May—may be partially traced back to a growing generation of frustrated immigrant youth wishing to call attention to their daily struggles with discrimination, economic marginalization, and social exclusion.

The onset of the global economic crisis in late 2007 has further complicated the daily lives of immigrant youth, with unemployment for this population topping 62 percent in Greece and 56 percent in Spain this year. In 2012, about 18 percent of youth ages 15 to 24 in developed economies and the European Union (EU) were unemployed—a decades-long record, according to the International Labor Organization. Young people with an immigration background are significantly more likely to become NEET (not in education, employment, or training) than their native-born counterparts—perhaps as much as 70 percent more likely, according to recent estimates from the European Monitoring Centre on Change (EMCC).

With the exception of certain high-skilled immigrants recruited by developed and emerging economies to fill the needs of their high value-added sectors, most immigrant youth—and often those with an immigrant background as well—find it difficult to make themselves marketable. This trend can be observed both in the United States and in the European Union, regions particularly hard-hit by the global recession (other strongly-affected regions include the Middle East and North Africa).

Civil society and national and city governments on both sides of the Atlantic have mobilized since the beginning of the economic recession to reach out to what many are calling a "lost generation"—one at risk for long-lasting economic damage—although the efforts have not been uniform.

This article examines common challenges and factors influencing the development of local labor-market integration initiatives targeting immigrant youth. It is based on the author's recently published study* which drew from expert interviews conducted in 2008-09 with representatives of local governments and community organizations in four European and U.S. cities: Munich, Germany; Warsaw, Poland; Phoenix, Arizona; and San Diego, California.

Case Study Profiles

Representing both old and new EU Member States, neighboring countries Germany and Poland have different bonds and sense of belonging to the European Union. Poland became an EU Member State in 2004, 53 years after Germany and five other European countries signed the Treaty of Paris, which eventually laid the foundation for the EU structure.

Germany has experienced four main immigration waves in the past several decades: ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states, so called Spätaussiedler (spanning several decades); asylum seekers and guest workers from Italy, Spain, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey (1960s and early 70s); asylum seekers and guest workers from Central and Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, Hungary, and Romania (1980s and 1990s); and Jews from the successor states of the former Soviet Union (1990s). Today, Germany has the highest number of foreign citizens among all EU Member States.

As in other former Communist countries, international migration was restricted in Poland for several decades. Those who settled, usually as spouses of Polish citizens, came to Poland via student exchange programs or as trainees and workers (mainly from the former Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Vietnam). The collapse of Communism in 1989 brought foreign tourists and circular migrants from the east (mostly Ukraine), but no massive inflows. The number of asylum seekers in Poland increased from the late 1980s on, but many succeeded in eventually penetrating Western Europe. Entering the European Union in 2004 and the Schengen area in 2007 did not bring significant new immigrant flows. Poland has since had one of the lowest immigration rates in the European Union (see EU Membership Highlights Poland's Migration Challenges).

Arizona and California also differ in terms of immigration trends, histories, and current political climate. California saw its immigrant share of total population rise to 40 percent in 1860, after large-scale immigration during the Gold Rush; while the share has fluctuated since then, it now stands at 27 percent—the highest share among U.S. states. Half of California's immigrants came either from Canada or Europe in the 1950s; by the 1990s, Hispanic and Asian immigrants were the predominant foreign-born groups.

Until the late 1980s, many immigrants viewed Arizona as a cheaper but less attractive alternative destination than neighboring California (both states share an extensive border with Mexico). However, as U.S.-Mexico border controls in California became more restrictive and more job opportunities became available in Arizona, immigrants—authorized and unauthorized alike—increasingly chose to settle in Arizona. The foreign-born share of Arizona's total population rose from less than 3 percent in 1980 to over 7 percent in 2011.

Munich, Warsaw, Phoenix, and San Diego are similar in their population sizes and dynamic economies, yet have contrasting immigration trends and histories (see Table 1). In 2009, the foreign-born share of Warsaw's total population was more than 20 times lower than the other cities surveyed in the study. The most diversified immigrant groups were found in Munich, whereas the largest concentration of one single group among the foreign born was reported in Phoenix (61 percent Mexican).

The share of immigrant youth (exact age range varied, see Table 1) of the total youth population was sizeable in Munich (28 percent) and Phoenix (22 percent), whereas a smaller share was reported in San Diego (15 percent; Warsaw data unavailable).

Table 1: City Migration Profiles, 2009
  San Diego1 Phoenix2 Munich3 Warsaw [Masovian Voivodeship]4
Total population1 1.3 million 1.6 million 1.3 million 1.7 million
Total foreign born 325,819 346,430 308,570 No official data available
Immigrant share of total population 25% 22% 25% No official data available, perhaps around 1.5%4
Immigrant share of total youth population (ages 18-24) 15% 25% 28% No official data available
Top five countries of origin (share of all foreign born) Mexico (61%) Mexico (48%) Turkey (13%) Ukraine (20%)
Canada (4%) Philippines (13%) Croatia (8%) Vietnam (16%)
India (3%) Vietnam (5%) Austria (7%) Belarus (8%)
Philippines (3%) China (4%) Italy (7%) Russia (6%)
China (2%) Iraq (2%) Greece (7%) China (3%)
For San Diego and Phoenix: Author's own analysis of U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey (ACS). Available online. For Munich: Author's own analysis of German Federal Statistical Office 2009 data, available online, and Statistisches Amt München. 2009. Available online. For Warsaw: Author's own analysis of Polish Central Statistical Office 2009 data, Available online, and Polish Office for Foreigners. Available online.

Notes: Data on top five countries of origin refer to San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA metro area and Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ metro area.
Due to the shortcoming of the Polish methods of collecting data on immigrants, data on foreign born are only available for voivodeships (administrative districts), not for the cities. According to 2002 estimates presented in a 2008 study, 71 percent of foreign born in the Masovian Voivodeship lived in Warsaw (see Piekut, Aneta. 2008. Foreigners in Warsaw. Warsaw: Centre of Migration Studies). It is assumed that in 2009, the foreign born accounted for about 1.5 percent of the population of Warsaw. Improvements in monitoring the numbers of immigrants in Poland were expected in 2011 but were unable to be obtained.

While origin countries of immigrants in Phoenix were similar to those in San Diego, no such trend could be observed between Munich and Warsaw. Germany attracted Turkish, Croatian, and Western/Southern European immigrants, while Warsaw drew mostly immigrants from former Soviet countries.

These comparative trends and histories are helpful in understanding the political climate in which immigrant youth-focused organizations operate in the four cities. In longstanding immigrant destinations such as Munich (and to a lesser extent San Diego), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) enjoy greater government support, business involvement, and networking opportunities than in Warsaw and Phoenix, where immigration is a relatively new phenomenon. However, the factors shaping integration work and outcomes for immigrant youth are complex and vary greatly between and within the four cities.

Understanding the Integration Process: The Positive Youth Development (PYD) Approach

Many organizations in the four cities viewed their roles in integration as organic and proactive. Instead of encouraging immigrant youth to accept the first available job—a quick yet short-sighted route to self-sufficiency—these organizations directly engaged immigrant youth in developing and delivering services for their peers. This often led youth to improve their organizational and entrepreneurial skills, as well as self-confidence.

One San Diego-based organization encouraged immigrant youth to learn about the U.S. educational system as well cultural norms and values, and prompted them to set high career expectations. These actions, the interviewee pointed out, helped youth become more aware of the various paths available to them—whether enrolling in vocational training, pursuing further education, or immediately beginning to search for jobs.

These types of approaches in many ways reflect the priorities put forth in Positive Youth Development (PYD), a theory developed by U.S. researchers over the past few decades which has become more influential of organizations' understanding of their roles in the integration process. The PYD theory puts forth that only a positive approach toward youth will lead to their successful integration. Immigrant youth are not viewed as a challenge but instead as a source of power, talents, and new energy for the receiving society, under this theory. Integration service providers adopting the PYD approach recognize and build on skills of immigrant youth, such as their ability to juggle many worlds, developed throughout their lives as immigrants.

Issues Impacting the Success or Failure of Integration Programs Targeting Immigrant Youth

Integration Strategies and Monitoring

The development of integration strategies and monitoring by city government not only encourages local organizations to engage in integration work, but also makes immigration a less taboo subject in public discourse. Cities such as Munich provide an official framework for immigrant integration activities, and also enjoy a thriving network of civil-society actors and heightened awareness for immigrant integration among city residents. Broad city government support for integration work opens new possibilities for organizations to tap into federal or state resources, such as platforms for consultation and partnerships with governmental and nongovernmental integration stakeholders.

Munich's intensive partnership with NGOs led to the formation of the city's Intercultural Integration Concept (IIC). Approved by the Munich City Council in 2008, IIC is a framework for ensuring integration services in the city are readily available for all immigrants, regardless of nationality, language spoken, religion, age, or gender. Between 2009 and 2011, the overall share of new trainees of an immigrant background in Munich rose by 16 percent.

Financial Resources

Under constant pressure to seek new funds before nongovernment grants end, many organizations with integration activities—usually nonprofits—cannot focus on improving their services. In addition, grantmakers' regulations control the type of integration work that an organization can carry out. For example, several Phoenix-based organizations interviewed reported that they could not provide services to unauthorized immigrant youth using grant money (although a few did, just outside the scope of grant-funded activities).

Municipal, state, national, or, in Europe, EU funds are therefore indispensable financial resources for the development of integration programs for immigrant youth. In some instances, funding opportunities even compel organizations to take up integration work; such was the case in Warsaw after the European Fund for Integration of Third-Country Nationals (EIF) announced new funding opportunities for immigrant integration activities in 2007.

On both sides of the Atlantic, getting the business sector involved in immigrant youth integration appears to be one of the greatest challenge for many organizations. Job counselors are continually in search of private businesses that will sponsor internship opportunities for young immigrants. As the coordinator of one Munich-based organization reported, approaching businesses to cooperate on integration projects in the city requires excellent public-relations skills and special persuasive strategies. One interviewee from a Polish organization echoed these challenges: "It is much easier for businessmen to raise money for building a well in Sudan or building a school. Let's put it bluntly, they are not as controversial as sponsoring, for example, Chechens in Poland. In fact, our service to immigrants may be disturbing for some people."

Top-Down Policies

National directives and funds are often complements to local resources. One example is Germany's Integration through Qualification (Netzwerk: Integration durch Qualifizierung, IQ), a collaboration between the federal Ministry for Labor and Social Affairs, the federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the federal Employment Agency. Launched in 2005, the network is involved in a variety of projects aimed at improving labor market integration of youth with an immigrant background, including providing career-specific language training, support for entrepreneurs, and training for German companies to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. Notably, IQ works to facilitate the implementation of Germany's Federal Recognition Act of 2012, which aims to level the playing field between German-born job seekers and those who acquired professional qualifications abroad.

However, a few organizations in Munich pointed out that some top-down regulations—particularly the federal integration policy requiring integration courses—reduced the maneuverability of local service providers and often imposed unnecessary red tape. As some Munich-based organizations reported, federal regulations are sometimes not flexible and administrators overlook the longstanding successes of local integration management strategies, which may compromise their relations with the local immigrant youth community (see Germany Strives to Integrate Immigrants with New Policies).

Evolving Political Climates

The political climate vis-à-vis immigration and integration has evolved significantly over the past few years in both the United States and Europe. For example, dozens of integration-focused partnerships nationwide, such as the San Diego-based Dreamer Assistance Network, have expanded their fields of action to assist unauthorized immigrant youth with submitting applications to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program launched in August 2012. DACA grants a two-year deportation reprieve and work authorization for unauthorized immigrant youth brought to the United States as children and who meet certain educational and other criteria.

Also in August 2012, Germany passed the Federal Recognition Act which simplifies and standardizes procedures for evaluating professional or vocational qualifications acquired outside Germany. The act has given rise to many joint initiatives and campaigns, particularly in Munich, to raise awareness about employing young immigrant professionals.

The Polish government, for its part, has recently shown signs of acknowledging migration and integration as policy priorities: In July 2012, the Council of Ministers adopted the Migration Policy of Poland, based on the Interministerial Committee for Migration's Polish Migration Strategy, which calls for restructuring immigrant integration procedures and ensuring a number of educational and legal services that would benefit immigrant youth. Although an action plan to address funding and implementation has yet to be developed, the Polish Migration Strategy has served to unify Poland's burgeoning migration-focused civil society and raise awareness about the challenges and opportunities of integrating immigrant youth.

On the Horizon

Having entered a country before or during a global economic crisis that remains acute in many places, millions of young immigrants around the world are suffering from "economic scarring" and face long-lasting setbacks in launching their careers and reaching their potential. Discrimination in the job market remains a major obstacle in many parts of Europe and the United States, affecting both immigrant youth and young people with an immigrant background.

Aroused by a real fear that disillusioned youth will become a "lost generation" and possibly radicalized, many governments have taken notice and are taking action, but much remains to be done to improve the future prospects for these young people.

*This article is based on the author's book, Managing Integration of Immigrant Youth in the United States, Germany and Poland (2012) published by Südwestdeutscher Verlag für Hochschulschriften.


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