State Immigration Policy Offices: 3 Takeaways

Four states—Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York—have developed unique statewide offices to focus on immigrant integration, economic development, and other immigration policy issues. So far in 2015, California enacted legislation to create a statewide director of immigrant integration, and Pennsylvania introduced legislation to create an office.

The federal government also has recognized the role that states play in immigrant issues. The White House Task Force on New Americans recently issued a report that provides a national framework for fostering the civic, linguistic, and economic integration of immigrants and includes 48 recommended actions. With states becoming more proactive in establishing immigrant policies and increased federal attention to state and local activities, Pew sought to examine how these offices were created and structured and the roles they play.

To that end, Pew convened officials from the four states in December 2014 and April 2015. Representatives from the federal government and local immigrant integration offices contributed to the conversations. The events resulted in a unique intergovernmental dialogue about the challenges faced at each level of government and how they can work together better. From these discussions and additional research, Pew identified three key takeaways.

The structure and funding of each of these offices is unique.

  • An executive order created the Illinois Office of New Americans Policy and Advocacy in 2005 as a joint initiative by the governor’s office, the state Department of Human Services, and the nongovernmental Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Until 2015, the office received more than $6 million annually through the Department of Human Services, but as of this writing, the state Legislature has not approved a 2016 budget, leaving future support in question. Because the office was created by executive order, it can continue to exist if its funding is cut, but a new operating model might be needed.
  • Michigan founded its Office for New Americans through an executive order in 2014. The program was initially part of the governor’s office, but it moved in early 2015 to the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The office maintains a small staff but does not have an operating budget.
  • The Massachusetts Office of Refugee Resettlement was created by executive order in 1985 with a focus on refugee affairs, but 1992 legislation broadened its mandate to include all immigrants, establishing the Massachusetts Office for Refugees and Immigrants. Although it continues to focus on refugee resettlement, the office’s responsibilities were further expanded to include immigrant integration under a 2008 executive order creating a New Americans Agenda. It receives more than $1 million in state funding for citizenship promotion and employment assistance programs.
  • In New York, the governor established the Office for New Americans through the 2012-13 state budget. As in Massachusetts, however, the office was later codified through legislation. The New York office is housed in the Department of State, but its operations are conducted through a network of neighborhood-based community organizations. The office and its network were allocated nearly $7 million in the 2015-16 state budget.

The mission and priorities of each office are reflected in the partnerships they have built inside state government and in the broader community.

  • The New York office provides public outreach and direct services to immigrant communities. It provides funding to a network of 27 “opportunity centers”—partnerships with neighborhood-based organizations—to provide English classes, entrepreneurship assistance, occasions for civic engagement, job training and credentialing programs, outreach on fraud and wage protection, and other services.
  • In the past, Illinois’ office, like New York’s, provided funding to an outside nonprofit that then subcontracted with other organizations to serve the immigrant community. However, this structure may not continue, depending on the outcome of budget negotiations in the state.
  • The office in Massachusetts focuses its direct services primarily on its refugee resettlement mission, but it also has a broader immigrant policy and coordinating role. As part of this mission, the director sits on the Governor’s Advisory Council for Refugees and Immigrants, a statutorily created body that provides the governor with input on policy, planning, and priorities surrounding immigrants and refugees in the state.
  • The Michigan office has a policy focus but does not provide any direct services. It partners closely with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and with nongovernmental groups to minimize barriers to economic integration for immigrants by developing and publishing a series of professional licensing guides to support immigrant credentialing.

New models are emerging.

  • In 2015, California enacted legislation that established a statewide director of immigrant integration. The director, who is yet to be appointed, will be tasked with taking the lead on planning and coordination of immigrant services and policies and with developing a report on all federal and state immigration-related laws, regulations, policies, and programs. The law also created the Immigrant Integration Fund within the state Treasury to receive public and private funds for appropriation by the Legislature to the director.
  • Also in 2015, Pennsylvania introduced legislation to create an Office of New Americans within the Department of Community and Economic Development and an advisory committee, composed of the secretaries of multiple state agencies and nongovernmental members such as immigration lawyers and health insurance specialists.

Growing immigrant populations combined with federal integration priorities are likely to precipitate continued state action and the development of new models and initiatives. Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York have different priorities and challenges and have taken distinct approaches to establishing offices focused on immigrant activities and integration. Although many states without a dedicated agency are active on integration issues, those interested in formally establishing immigrant-focused offices and activities can learn from the experiences of these four states.

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