Preparing your agency for immigrant integration work

The following blog is derived from the text of a workshop talk given by CLINIC Integration Program Manager Leya Speasmaker Nov. 12 at the Justice for Immigrants convening in Chicago.

Integration has increased in importance and scope for our organization and our network.

We, as well as the federal government and other large immigrant-serving entities, typically use the definition coined by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees. They describe integration as: A dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.

This is a strong definition for a few reasons. First, it includes both the newcomers and the receiving community. Integration is not a job solely for the immigrant. The receiving community members also have a responsibility to grow and change and accommodate new arrivals.

Second, it emphasizes the process-based nature of integration. Integration is anything but static, and it is a long process, spanning generations. Finally, the organization includes the phrase “work together” when talking about integration. Integration is not something the receiving community permits or gives permission to the newcomers to do. Nor is it something newcomers should simply expect to happen to them. Integration happens with the buy-in and participation of both the newcomers and the receiving community.

Historically, the Catholic Church has been a catalyst in welcoming the stranger. From schools to health care to voter registration drives to food assistance, and importantly, to parish life, the church has developed systems for aiding the newest members of our communities. The church and its brethren are, in part, defined by a mandate to welcome the stranger. It is a part of our very identity. We are proud of this role, and we continue to fine-tune our efforts at reaching the newest, and often the most vulnerable, among us.

As part of the church’s efforts, CLINIC has a 27-year history of supporting local Catholic institutions that aid immigrants. CLINIC sees the migration experience and subsequent immigration statuses (documented or otherwise) as early steps in the integration process. We know from focus groups that the journey and the engagement with U.S. immigration law and officials shapes newcomers views’ of themselves in relationship to their new homeland.

Recently, CLINIC has been working with our affiliates to increase, encourage and promote the intentional development of integration programming. In January of 2015, we launched our Center for Immigrant Integration on our website. This center houses general resources on integration as well as topic-specific resources on the areas of ESL class development, citizenship test preparation and tax assistance services. We chose these three components because they are important to a successful naturalization application. We are partnering with a few external groups such as Intercambio: Uniting Communities and MyFreetaxes.com to offer specific strategies and tools for affiliates seeking information in these areas of integration.

Our network already does a fantastic job at providing many services that eventually lead to integration: ESL classes, citizenship test preparation classes, financial literacy classes and job training. These services are vital to the current and future well-being of our immigrant clients, and they are indisputably key to integration efforts. Each month, I’ve profiled an affiliate who is offering a unique and successful service to its community, designed to encourage integration.

We are working with our first cohort of Immigrant Integration Partners, to whom we are providing individualized and targeted technical assistance as they work to begin or improve integration services. We have catalogued where in our network ESL, citizenship test prep and tax assistance services are being offered so that those in our network can refer clients to the appropriate service providers. We’ve included training materials and resources in our well-known Immigration Program Management training that is offered nationwide in order to make integration a common part of our conversations about serving immigrants.

We are doing a lot, and our network is doing a lot. But I believe we can do more. It isn’t enough to simply offer services that we think might be helpful. As community-based non-profits, we must work to promote integration within our own doors. As service providers, we must actively seek out what services our immigrant neighbors would find beneficial. We must involve newcomers in the decisions we make for our community so that we can be assured that we are working together to create the integrated community we all desire.

This is no small task. It is easier, as we sit in our busy agencies serving clients each day, to decide ourselves what to offer our clients, how best to help them, and what might make a difference in their lives. That’s our job, that’s why work each day with our clients and coworkers, and that’s why we do what we do. Imagine, though, what would be possible working WITH our clients on integration. What could we do if we invited them into our office spaces and decision-making processes to decide, together, what the community collectively needs? What if we shared the power of the decision-making with our neighbors and worked together to make our community more welcoming for all?

What would that look like? How could that be accomplished? One example is found in Greensboro, North Carolina, with the FaithAction International House, a CLINIC affiliate. Before FaithAction decided what services to offer, they invited feedback and commentary from the community – their clients. The newcomers reported that they needed some form of ID that would help them gain access to services. They also said this type of ID would help them communicate with local police, who often requested information like name and address. With the need defined, FaithAction pulled together meetings between newcomers and the local police, complete with moderators, translators and other support staff.

The police and the immigrants, over several conversations, were able to speak to each other as a community instead of adversaries and find ways to help the newcomers feel more welcome and enable the police to more effectively do their job of protecting the community. A community ID card resulted from these meetings, which up until recently, when the North Carolina state government banned their use, were accepted by most local city government entities as a valid form of ID. While the future of the ID cards is in question, I believe their creation attests to the power of working together to make a more integrated place for all. FaithAction’s motto is ‘moving from strangers to neighbors’, and this is the sentiment I believe our work should embody — the idea that we work together to find solutions that work for everyone.[i]

To begin to strategize in this way takes an organization ready to make integration a priority: in its mission statement, its strategic plan, and its performance measurement tools. As a first step, an organization must learn how different stakeholders view and understand integration as well as how they feel living in their community.

There are several key components to successful integration-focused programs in CLINIC’s network. Some of these are: integration is included in the agency’s mission, objectives related to integration are clear to everyone, a point person designated and tasked with maintaining a focus on integration, a timeline is created to keep staff on track with objectives and activities, successes are celebrated and made public, and attention is given to outcome measures.

CLINIC has created two integration assessment tools: one for immigrants (currently available in English and Spanish) and one for agencies. Agencies can use the survey with clients to measure certain indicators that have been shown to be markers of integration: having a bank account; holding a job; feeling able to communicate with their child’s teacher; feeling comfortable calling the police if needed; having a willingness and ability to use community resources such as the local library, public parks, or other public spaces; feeling that one’s city of residence is a welcoming place to live; and more.

CLINIC’s affiliates can use these newly created survey tools to look at many indicators of agency readiness to measure their own capacity to promote integration. These include: do all staff members understand the definition of immigrant integration; does the agency assist clients in pursuing citizenship, including offering immigration legal services, English as a Second Language and citizenship test preparation classes and registering to vote? Does the agency and its staff promote integration and immigration as a benefit to the community; is immigrant integration included in the strategic plan, mission statement, and measurable goals; are immigrants represented on the board? Does the agency advocate for immigrants at the local and state government levels? Does the agency offer leadership development opportunities to immigrants? And, does the agency ask the immigrant community what services they need or what support they would like in their efforts to become involved in their community?

Immigrant integration is a beautiful, complex, on-going process that challenges us to reach outside of the known and familiar and purposefully embrace people who are on a migratory journey. By making integration a priority for our agencies and our service programs, we can encourage the development of communities that are welcoming places for all of our neighbors.

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Leya Speasmaker is Integration Program Manager for CLINIC, based in Austin, Texas.

Source: Catholic Charities