Ali Noorani: Immigrants Are Worth More Than Zero



Americans of all political stripes agree: As a nation of immigrants, we value and welcome immigrants who want to become American citizens, because it’s good for our economy and for our country.

Strange, then, that Congress is on the verge zeroing out funding for programs that encourage citizenship — for the second straight year.

When he announced his budget proposal Feb. 13, the president requested $11 million for grant programs that help bring citizenship within reach for our newest Americans. Recognizing the benefits to all of us when new Americans contribute fully to our society, Congress has funded such programs before, beginning with the George W. Bush administration.

The dearth of support for citizenship programs is glaring in comparison with what we spend on enforcing our borders and immigration laws: $9.9 billion per year.

This is money well spent: It directly supports English-language learning and civics programs and helps immigrants navigate the long, often complicated process of applying for citizenship — saving immigrants thousands of dollars in potential attorney fees.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimates that these grants helped 49,967 people become citizens between 2009 and 2011.

All for less than 0.03 percent of the annual Department of Homeland Security budget.

The dearth of support for citizenship programs is glaring in comparison with what we spend on enforcing our borders and immigration laws: $9.9 billion per year. Of course, securing our nation’s border should be a priority. But we should view enforcement spending through a fiscally responsible lens that looks at smart and efficient ways to allocate valuable resources.

Illegal border crossings are at their lowest levels since the early 1970s, signaling that our border is more secure with infrastructure and boots on the ground than ever before. A Pew Hispanic Center study released in April showed that net migration into the United States from Mexico had dropped to zero, and possibly less.

Indirectly, integration funding does even more good.

Improved English language skills allow new Americans to increase their incomes, open businesses and become homeowners.  According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, the average income level of immigrants who become citizens is 14.6 percent higher than that of non-citizens.

A modest investment in citizenship programs will integrate our newest neighbors so they are fully invested in the wellbeing and success of our communities. The full integration of our nation’s newcomers will make our country more prosperous and our democracy more robust and vital.

And yet, congressional leaders appear to be turning a blind eye to the benefits of such programs. Both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.

Republicans like to say that they’re all for legal immigration. Well, if so, providing funding for citizenship — a fundamental American value — is pretty straightforward.

Meanwhile, Congressional Democrats’ silence has been deafening. New Americans need more than excuses and lip service during election season. They, and all of us who welcome immigrants as fully contributing members of our society, need leadership in the form of action.

Integrating immigrants deserves “More Than Zero” from our nation’s leadership.

The party that picks up the flag has much to gain. Leading the way on funding for citizenship programs is a great way to connect with new American voters — the voting-age, U.S.-citizen children of immigrants as well as older, newly naturalized citizens. These constituencies are growing, and election outcomes at all levels will hinge on these voting blocs.

Helping legal immigrants fully embrace the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American issue, and it is in our country’s best interest to encourage and assist law-abiding would-be citizens who are eager and eligible to take the next step.

We encourage Congress to continue recognizing the value of immigration by investing in immigrant integration. The contributions of new Americans to our nation are a boon for our economy. Agreeing to renew small but significant funding for citizenship and integration programs is an important signal that immigrants are worth More Than Zero to America.

Ali Noorani is Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, which is leading More Than Zero, an online campaign to seek funding for immigrant integration.  

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Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum and author of “There Goes the Neighborhood” (Prometheus Books, April 2017).