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This article is part of a Special Section titled “CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS IN AMERICA” that ran in the August/September 2011 print issue of PA TIMES. Contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin ([email protected]) for more information on the print issue. See the Related Articles box for links to more articles from the Special Section.
Chris Spoons, Mark Gordon
The United States of America is founded on immigrants coming to the New World to build a better life from the fruits of their own labor. Throughout its history, people have continued to immigrate to the United States for many of the reasons they did 200 years ago: to begin a new life free of ethnic or religious persecution and to seek new opportunities, safety and freedom. However, once immigrants arrive, they face many challenges; some anticipated, some not.
What happens next is a point of contention among many citizens. Some contend that organizations should do more to help new arrivals, while others believe institutions are already doing too much. We must find compromise and be willing to adjust as the situation demands. New arrivals should not have everything handed to them, nor should they be expected to fend for themselves with no assistance at all. In order to help their transition into what is often a fundamental contrast to the community they left behind, there should be a mixture of institutions assisting the immigrants’ integration into their new communities, as well as the newcomers creating their own opportunities in their adopted country. What organizations and institutions should do is to help people help themselves.
Some immediate challenges new immigrants face include finding housing and transportation, figuring out how to enroll children in school, and how to find any needed social services or health care. Finding employment or even negotiating transportation to a new job or a new grocery market with strange new foods can be a daunting and time consuming task.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, has published Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants in 14 languages (English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu and Vietnamese).
The guide is free of charge and offers information on seeking employment, health care, learning English, and finding housing. It explains things others may take for granted, like the concept of a landlord and what to expect when trying to rent an apartment. The guide also outlines the rights one has as a permanent or conditional resident and lists further information on finding free legal assistance on immigration issues. For those who are permanent legal residents, the document outlines how to keep one’s permanent status and how to apply for citizenship.
Some new arrivals need more immediate personal assistance, especially if they have been through traumatic experiences. For example, non-profit organizations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) assist refugees resettling into their new lives in the U.S. In 2010, the IRC helped resettle more than 9,600 new refugees in the U.S. and assisted 24,500 refugees, asylees and victims of human trafficking. The IRC provides emergency food, shelter, and clothing, as many arrive with few or no personal items. The organization then assists with job placement, employment skills, and immigration services.
Once a person moves in to a new community, there are often many local institutions offering additional programs to help the person settle in. Chambers of commerce often print welcome packets and information in multiple languages. Other community-based organizations provide new residents with details about such topics as health care and nutrition, and teach them how to navigate the social service and health care systems.
Faith-based organizations are often involved in assisting immigrants, recognizing that people new to a country will not be immediately familiar with the ins and outs of their new community. Many places of worship hold services in multiple languages, helping non-English speakers feel more at home. Some also offer a variety of programs to assist those in need, from counseling services, to soup kitchens, to domestic violence prevention programs. Others offer job skills training, English as a Second Language classes, parenting skills seminars, and networking opportunities. Some make home visits, offering welcome baskets and serving as local advocates to families new to the area.
Although there are many programs and services available, those new to the country should not expect to have a government agency or other organization do everything for them when they arrive. People should also take steps to help themselves. Taking advantage of the programs available locally will help the immigrant transition from needing assistance to being more self sufficient. For those who are not English speakers, learning the language will make it much easier to be self sufficient. Local libraries, community colleges, or other community organizations offer English as a Second Language courses, and are often free or charge only a minimal fee. Learning the language can make it easier to become involved in the community and create a sense of belonging.
By helping people help themselves, immigrants are able to receive the assistance they need while also becoming part of the community. By becoming involved, they are doing more things for themselves, gaining a sense of accomplishment and independence and helping to make changes that affect the entire community. As fiercely independent as American citizens are when compared to more collectivist cultures, we must also recognize that we are also interdependent. Lending a helping hand while fostering personal independence is essential for a smooth transition and active civic life.
ASPA member Chris Spoons is a Ph.D. candidate in public policy and administration at Walden University. Email: [email protected]
Mark Gordon is associate dean of the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University.