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Integrating Immigrants and Refugees Can Be an Economic Boon

By Mark Wolf  |  November 28, 2022

When Michigan was scheduled to receive 2,000 refugees in four months from the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan last year, the state’s immigration officials knew they couldn’t handle that many arrivals in such a short time on their own.

“We engaged with the state emergency operations center,” says Karen Phillippi, the director of New American Immigration in the Office of Global Michigan, which supports immigrant and refugee integration efforts for the state. Phillippi was a panelist for a session on strengthening immigrant integration at NCSL’s Base Camp.

We really believe there shouldn’t be separate services for immigrants and refugees. That should be built into the customer service our states are providing, no matter who walks through the door.
—Karen Phillippi, Office of Global Michigan

“No emergency was declared, but their process was really what we needed,” she says. “We partnered with local food banks, community action agencies, dental schools and the Michigan Primary Care Association to bring those 2,000 individuals into our state.”

The state set up a transitional housing model in hotels in three locations for a span of a couple of weeks to 60 days and brought all services to the hotel.

“We had health screening, benefits signup, food assistance and were able to place them into more permanent housing,” Phillippi says, adding that when Ukrainian refugees began arriving, the state already had those partnerships established.

Michigan’s response was a warp-speed ramp-up of how the state has been dealing with immigration since the office was created in 2014 by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder as part of the Office of New Americans State Network, which has grown from five states to 17.

“It was created to support immigrants and refugees at the state level,” Phillippi says. “There are red and blue states (in the network). It’s a bipartisan issue. Some of them are located in the governor’s office, some in state agencies.”

Michigan, nationally known for its work around occupational licensing, developed over 40 licensing guides for individuals who are foreign-educated or trained, she says.

She cites Michigan’s “barber bill,” which created an easier pathway for foreign-trained barbers to be licensed in Michigan.

“It was a big hurdle for them to redo over 2,000 hours to be licensed when they had years of experience in Iraq but due to the conflict were unable to bring any of their documentation over with them,” she says.

The state also created a refugee immigrant navigators program located in the five counties with the largest number of immigrants and refugees to assist newcomers who are looking to connect with workforce services and to go into the community to deal with issues such as child care and transportation.

Helping Residents Become Citizens

Illinois Rep. Dagmara Avelar (D), who was also a Base Camp session panelist, says her state’s New American initiative was to build a coordinated multiyear campaign for citizenship.

“Studies have shown time and again that when it comes to citizenship, when we help residents to become citizens, we are helping our economy,” she says, adding that about 10,000 residents become citizens through the program annually.

“Illinois has a history of firsts when it comes to immigration,” Avelar says, including allowing for medical services through Medicaid provided to undocumented residents. “They have health care sometimes for the very first time.”

Avelar was undocumented (her family emigrated from Ecuador in 2001) when she graduated from high school and benefitted from the state allowing undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition.

“Driver’s licenses were something that was huge in our communities, and we were able to get temporary licenses for people without Social Security numbers,” she says.

Nebraska Sen. John McCollister (R), who is retiring this year, is co-chair of NCSL’s Immigration Task Force, on which he has served for eight years, emphasizes the importance of immigration to Nebraska.

“Nebraska is desperate for workers,” he says. “It’s estimated we have over 70,000 vacant jobs. Since we have so many food processing industries, immigrants make up so many of those companies and what they do is essential.

“Immigrants are deeply involved in our state. It’s estimated they hold 79,000 jobs and generate $16 billion in economic activity. The foreign workforce is much younger than the general population, so when it comes to Social Security, we need a younger workforce to support it.

“We have continuing depopulation in some parts of Nebraska,” he says, “and I don’t think we’re going to have much problem impressing on people that continued immigration essential in Nebraska to grow and prosper.”

Yet for all the economics and demographics, McCollister’s interest in immigration goes beyond the numbers.

“I met with so many DACA recipients, and that work inspired me to be included on the NCSL task force. It’s personal with me after the association I had with those DACA kids,” he says.

In the long term, Michigan’s Phillippi says, “Our office strives to put ourselves out of business, so to speak. We really believe there shouldn’t be separate services for immigrants and refugees. That should be built into the customer service our states are providing—no matter who walks through the door.”

Mark Wolf is a senior editor at NCSL.

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