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January 20, 2020

Six Key Reasons for Virginia to Open an Office of New Americans and Leverage Our Untapped Potential

While the U.S. has a long, yet often divisive, history of welcoming immigrants to join our democracy, the country has never quite developed a formal system to help integrate newcomers into the economy and our communities. Many of us know how hard it can be to move to a new community, find employment, and settle into a home. There is often a needless waste of talent and struggle for these families who simply need some advice and direction about where to find resources. 

For years, Virginia lawmakers have put forth proposals to start a state Office of Immigrant Assistance, but it has consistently failed to be passed by the General Assembly. As other states rush to establish similar offices, advancing their efforts to build economies that fully include as many people as possible, Virginia should consider making this relatively small investment (just over half a million annually) that will yield big returns and support HB1209 for an Office of New Americans. 

Here are the top six reasons why lawmakers should give serious consideration to making this small investment this year:

Reason #1: Immigrants in Virginia are highly educated, but face unique barriers. Everyone benefits when people are connected to jobs that match their skills and experience 

  • Virginia immigrants are more likely to hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree than U.S.-born residents, but are much more likely to be underemployed in jobs that don’t make maximum use of their level of education. 
  • Similar offices in other states help connect immigrants to jobs that match their skills and help them overcome search and language barriers. 

Reason #2: Prevent predatory practices and fraud

  • Immigrants can fall victim to predatory practices and fraud, and the Office of New Americans would issue warnings to immigrant service organizations and alert localities of illegal practices.

Reason #3: Immigration drives Virginia’s economy forward 

  • With declining labor force participation trends across the country, Virginia immigrants are much more likely to participate in the labor force, are more likely to be of prime working age, and are more likely to have higher household incomes than U.S.-born residents.

Reason #4: Other states are benefiting from successful immigrant assistance offices

  • Policymakers across the political spectrum in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, Colorado, and California have embraced and started statewide opportunity offices for new immigrants. 
  • These offices have contributed to helping connect immigrant residents to job and training opportunities, along with resources to become full citizens. 

Reason #5: Virginia’s current estimated costs to start this office are small, yet there is big potential to leverage more resources for immigrant residents 

  • The cost of running an Office of New Americans is estimated to be around $580,000 annually. That’s an extremely small amount for a state office. Yet as we’ve seen in other states, this office holds the potential to break down barriers for thousands of Virginia residents and allow them to contribute more fully to their communities. 
  • Most of the responsibility of the office would be directing immigrants to existing local service providers and state agencies, and coordinating efforts for statewide and business economic, linguistic, and civic integration.

Reason #6: Nonprofits can’t meet the needs of all newcomers

  • Nonprofit service organization such as Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Catholic Charities do important work helping new Americans, particularly refugees, find their footing. Yet today, many of these organizations are stretched thin, in part because the Trump administration’s restrictions on the number of refugees who can enter the United States has reduced federal funding for refugee resettlement. 
  • Although these agencies often use private donations to assist new Americans who are not classified as refugees, they remain unable to meet the need. As a result, too many families do not know where to turn for good advice, with some ending up becoming the victims of scams and exploitation.

One in four children in Virginia live in immigrant households; nearly 13 percent of the state’s population are foreign-born; and immigrants will continue to be a significant part of our economy and state well into the future. Virginia is home to around 750,000 authorized immigrants, most of whom are not refugees or asylees and therefore are ineligible to receive services through the federally-funded Office of Newcomer Assistance. Most Virginians who would be helped are a diverse array of people of color, with half having emigrated to the United States from Asia, one-fourth emigrating from central or south America, and one in 10 emigrating from Africa. If Virginia wants to continue growing and thriving, it should make full use of all available resources to support our immigrant communities and make prudent investments in systems like the Office for New Americans. 

Here is a good resource with information about how to contact your lawmakers to let them know where you stand on the bill to create an Office of New Americans.


Chad Stewart

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