shutterstock_108540368As the 113th Congress engages in a historic debate on immigration reform, past attempts to overhaul immigration laws provide cautious reminders of the struggles and opportunities ahead in closing a deal on immigration policy. While the United States’ own history is critical for understanding both the shortcomings and solutions of various policy arrangements, the experience of other receiving countries in dealing with immigration and immigrant integration also constitute an invaluable source of guiding lessons. By learning what effective policy solutions have been formulated in other countries to address issues such as the regularization of their undocumented population, the integration of newcomers, and the reception of asylees, to mention just a few – the United States can better and more strategically craft immigration policy and anticipate the impact of those policy changes.

This idea inspired the study “Paving the Way for Integration: The Pathways to Citizenship in France and the United States”, released today. The study is part of the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), a reference guide to assess, compare and improve integration policy in 31 countries in Europe and North America.  Using over 100 policy indicators, MIPEX offers a multi-dimensional picture of the opportunities available to migrants to participant in society based on an assessment of governments’ integration policies.

The results presented in the comparative report provide some interesting input for policy inspiration. In fact, France and the United States both have a lot to learn from each other’s immigration and integration policies. Among its conclusions, the report underscores that any legalization program should include a path to citizenship.

“Becoming citizens changes not only how immigrants participate in society, but also how society sees them. Naturalized immigrants obtain access to equal protection, voting and political rights, and the full labor market. In Western European countries as in the United States, immigrants who have naturalized tend to be better off in life than immigrants who have not. The emerging evidence from both sides of the Atlantic usually finds them to be more often employed and participating in voting and other types of political activities, working in better jobs, living in better housing, and enjoying a better financial situation.”

Based on experience from both countries, the report also recommends that time-limited legalization programs be supplemented with on-going legalization mechanisms that are also needed as safety valves to correct unexpected situations (e.g., the infeasibility of deportation due to the immigrant’s personal situation or the situation in her country of origin, or the existence of strong ties—including family—that link individuals without status to the host country). Unlike the United States, where policy makers have closed off most of the on-going legalization mechanisms that act as safety valves for the legal immigration system, France has developed a balanced legalization policy including time-limited programs and on-going mechanisms on work, family, and humanitarian grounds over the past two decades. These may be politically sound instruments to emulate on this side of the Atlantic.

In order for a legalization program to be effective, moreover, the study stressed the need for countries to clearly specify the steps that lead to legalization or regularization of status and ensure that information is widely disseminated among immigrants.  Evidentiary requirements should not be overly burdensome and, where discretion is exercised, it should not be used to empower officers to deny applicants who meet the statutory requirements. In the absence of these conditions, policies that instead create a long and winding road to long-term residence and citizenship may actually deprive a country of effective means to improve integration.

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