Changing The Conversation On Immigration Reform: Two Social Entrepreneurs' Roles In Today's Debate

For years, Americans varying from former President George W. Bush to actress Eva Longoria have denounced the United States immigration system as broken.

“Broken” seems like an appropriate term.  A patchwork of misaligned incentives, out-of-touch regulations, and partisan politics that seem to satisfy no one have led to a situation that punishes law-abiding people just looking for a chance at economic opportunity and encourages often life-threatening and dangerous activities, ripping apart families and communities in the process. Finally, comprehensive immigration reform, one that addresses the different facets of this complex issue, recently passed the Senate with bipartisan approval.

Fixing a broken system is the hallmark of social entrepreneurs, and for two Ashoka Fellows, the momentum around the Senate bill has served as a platform for them to shape U.S. immigration policy.  Across the globe, 57% of Ashoka Fellows have contributed to changing national policy within five years of their election to the global network, whether through helping draft legislation or regulations, providing testimony, or organizing citizen action.

Ai-jen Poo and David Lubell both participated significantly in contributing to the Senate bill and will continue as the House debates reform.  In the process, they are not only dispelling myths about immigrants; they are seeking to change the conversation around how America perceives and treats them.

Ai-jen’s organization, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, partnered with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum to launch the We Belong Together Campaign. Part of a coalition of women’s leaders and herself the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, Ai-jen is underscoring the significance of reform for families.  Although people tend to picture undocumented immigrants as men working in the fields or as dehumanized figures living in the shadows of society, in fact 51% of the immigrants coming to the U.S. are women.  Many of them are employed in homes as nannies, nurses, and caregivers for our grandmothers and grandfathers, often the most vulnerable members of our families.  In many cases the caregivers become part of the family too, yet without documents their status in the country is precarious.  As the American population ages rapidly, Ai-jen says, more families will rely on a trained workforce of immigrants to help support them in providing care to their elderly and disabled loved ones. The campaign highlights the stories and voices of women from all walks of life to stress the value of women immigrants and their contributions to our economy and society.  Ai-jen also is taking part in the Caring Across Generations Campaign to publicize the stories of seniors and people with disabilities and their relationships with their caregivers.  These advocacy campaigns found receptive voices in the Senate, particularly among women Senators who are making family issues a cornerstone of their efforts on immigration reform.  Ai-jen says that their offices were especially interested in using the stories promoted by Caring Across Generations to advocate on behalf of the bill in committee.

Joining her in these campaigns are social sector organizations, unions, and advocates for justice. Ai-jen says that of the experience of participating in these campaigns, “there is no such thing as an unlikely ally when we are talking about human dignity and the human experience.”  By bringing together voices from across the spectrum, Ai-jen and these campaigns make it clear that immigration reform has a tangible and relatable face, that of our closest and dearest family members.

Meanwhile, David Lubell and his organization Welcoming America were invited by the Gang of 8, the bipartisan team of Senators who authored the bill, to provide a unique, non-partisan perspective to the debate.  Most of the attention and rhetoric around immigration in previous reform attempts ignored the “receiving communities,” the U.S.-born population in the areas where migrants arrive and lay down their roots.  Members of receiving communities often have fears when they see their communities changing.  If unaddressed, these fears can lead to an unwelcoming climate for new immigrants. Thus, engaging receiving communities and bringing them into contact with their new neighbors is key for immigrants to thrive as active, contributing members of society.

David believes that creating a welcoming, positive environment for immigrants not only promotes cultural diversity, it actively engages them with everyone else to become a force for local economic growth. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) approached David and Welcoming America after learning about their unique approach to immigrant integration. Welcoming America responded by demonstrating to the Senator and his staff that reaching out to longtime residents of communities impacted by immigration consistently leads to better integration for arriving immigrants and greater social cohesion for the community at large. They provided examples that were close to home for the Senator, showing how the Colorado cities of Littleton and Greeley had seen substantial success in their immigrant integration efforts by garnering significant community and government buy-in.

With Welcoming America’s concepts in hand, the Gang of 8 bill placed the notion of “receiving communities” on the agenda.  The legislation would for the first time define the term in U.S. law, create an inter-agency task force that will, among many other activities, coordinate the federal response to “receiving communities,” and establish and appropriate funds for a public-private foundation that would disperse grants to state and local governments for efforts on immigrant integration.

David sees this as a monumental step forward: “For the first time in our nation’s history, federal legislation is advancing that provides direction and resources to engage long-time residents in the immigrant integration process,” he says.  “The act has the potential to deepen our sense of a shared future and lead to more economically, socially, and culturally vibrant communities.”  In his impression, the language on immigrant integration was hardly controversial in the Senate; most reasonable people recognize the potential that immigrants bring to the country and that ensuring their full integration will enable overall economic success.  He foresees that if the final legislation encompasses immigrant integration, Welcoming America will become a national standard as cities and counties look for proven methods and examples to better equip their receiving communities.

The question now gripping immigration reform is if the House can muster the same energy and will to approve it.  “They have a choice,” Ai-jen says of House Republicans and Democrats, “whether to come together and provide solutions or continue to fight for political dominance.”

Following the recommendations of social entrepreneurs like Ai-jen and David would help Congress stay on track to adopt a lasting, systems-changing reform with broad impact on the makeup of the American society and economy for decades.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on ForbesPhoto Credit: Flickr/cool revolution