Millions of immigrants in America, provoked by a callous anti-immigrant bill in Congress, took to the streets in May 2006. America watched as they marched together in the largest rallies this nation has seen in decades.
Those May events signaled the dawning of a new political era. We witnessed an emerging, powerful voice calling for change in not only who is allowed to stay in this nation, but also, how we address the needs of new immigrants who are already here, facing the harsh difficulties of integrating into a new culture and a new land.
Polls consistently tell us that most Americans want an immigration system that works. They want rational and reasonable measures and support neither open borders nor immediate deportation. They want a system that sensibly matches demand with the supply of labor in our challenged economy. They want a system that allows families to remain together and to thrive, one that respects the history and diversity of America. They want a system that recognizes the generations of contributions immigrants have made with open hearts and hands to our culture and economy.
Polls also tell us Americans understand that immigrants share their principles of hard work and family values - they, too, want to make a better life for their children. At the same time, Americans have real questions that we need to answer. "How well will these new immigrants fit into my community?" they wonder. "Will they change themselves as much as we have to change? Will they make our democracy stronger or weaker?" These are all fair questions.
Immigrant integration is a partnership. It is work for immigrants and it is work for the people who live in their receiving communities. It requires planning and resources and is in the best interests of all Americans. As John F. Kennedy said, "Every ethnic minority...helps strengthen the fabric of liberty in American life."
When Kennedy said that, there weren't-and still aren't-federal policies that guide immigrant integration. Historically, it has been our nation's public institutions - our schools, churches and the military - that have played the primary role in the integration process. With the slow decline of those structural institutions, we're all missing a great opportunity to better integrate immigrants into American life.
Americans want immigrants to have better tools to integrate, such as access to learning English and assistance for legal permanent residents to attain citizenship. They also know immigrants need the tools to learn the norms of the society they're entering into, so they have the ability to understand and engage in our communities, in our political system and our democracy. With these tools, immigrants can more smoothly integrate and Americans already here, can more easily welcome them.
I've sat among groups of immigrants seeking services in their communities. I've helped them apply for citizenship and I've watched them study hard to become citizens. I've marched with them to the capitol, listened as they talked to legislators and to members of Congress. I've seen them fully engaged with passionate desire in their effort to make the world a better place for their children - and for my children. They know, and I know, that if they can bring their full talents to bear and make their voices heard, it will be to everyone's benefit.
Washington has joined other states across the country in waking up to the reality that the success of immigrant integration is crucial to our social fabric and to our economy. There is a growing movement to recognize the need for better integration strategies coupled with expanded resources. We are, as a nation, beginning to understand that if we give immigrants the tools they need, they will contribute even more to our economy and become tax-paying, engaged and informed citizens.
Immigrant integration is a two-way street and building strategic policies that recognize the contributions and hard work of immigrants is crucial. We need policies that ensure immigrants are engaged and supported rather than targeted and ignored. When our immigration policies reflect our American values, we will be stronger as a nation. That's good for immigrants - and great for America.
Pramila Jayapal is executive director of Hate Free Zone, a non-profit organization in Seattle advancing immigrant, civil and human rights.