States hoping to provide support to their immigrant and refugee residents are taking part in the Office of New Americans (ONA) network. This network has established a forum for state policy leaders to drive positive immigrant and refugee integration into their local workforces and economies.
In October, 35 state government officials representing ONAs from across the United States gathered in Washington D.C. for an annual convening co-hosted by the American Immigration Council and WES Global Talent Bridge. The convening allowed the ONAs to discuss timely issues impacting their states, like the federal policy developments and the increasing number of asylum seekers moving from the U.S-Mexico border to the interior. ONA leaders learned from technical assistance providers, partner organizations, and one another on a variety of topics, including workforce integration, upskilling, language access, access to government services, resettling new arrivals, legislation impacting immigrant communities, and more.
“It is one of the only conferences I have been to where people wish there were even more days,” says Victoria Francis, the Council’s new Deputy Director of State and Local Initiatives. “ONAs are eager to learn from one another, share best practices, and ensure both newcomers and the welcoming community have what they need to thrive.”
The conference participants are all members of the bipartisan ONA Network, which consists of 19 state government offices or representatives committed to immigrant integration and inclusion work in their state. The ONAs in the Network vary in where they are situated within state government – some offices are housed in agencies like human services or workforce development, while others are based in their governor’s office. The growth of these offices is notable: the number of ONAs has more than tripled since 2019, with North Dakota and Maine being the newest states that have invested in immigrant inclusion work.
Despite the states’ diverse political landscapes, key industries in every state are experiencing workforce shortages. ONAs are at the forefront of innovative responses to workforce integration, and some states are prioritizing the recruitment and upskilling of immigrants to fill open positions in their communities. Others are reconceptualizing how they can leverage new services and standards to meet language accessibility requirements or are strategizing to build intergovernmental emergency responses to recent migrant arrivals to their states.
Several humanitarian crises over the past few years—including the war in Ukraine and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan—have resulted in large numbers of humanitarian parolees being resettled in the U.S. This has represented a test for ONAs across the country. These offices were called on to lead statewide responses, convene local partners, and liaise with federal government counterparts to ensure new arrivals can find safety and opportunity in their states. The arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers from the southern border represents yet another test.
The convening also included time to build relationships with federal partners. State representatives joined U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for their first annual National Immigrant Inclusion and Citizenship Education Conference. Several members of the ONA Network presented on the day’s opening panel, discussing successful integration programs in their own states, including building an intergovernmental integration task force in North Carolina, creating a statewide language access plan for New York, and building workforce integration programs in Utah.
On the final day, states met with federal partners at the White House to discuss the impact of federal policy and programs on their communities. States led breakout groups on integration topics, including global talent and workforce development, language access, resettlement of recent arrivals, and access to federal wellbeing programs. Representatives from several federal offices and agencies joined, including USCIS, the Departments of Homeland Security, Education, and Justice, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ONAs gained insight into the situation at the southern U.S. border, the federal government’s efforts to enforce language access requirements, and more. Federal partners had the opportunity to hear which policies would best support their integration work directly from states.
With a presidential election on the horizon and with immigration as a top issue for voters, 2024 will undoubtedly bring new challenges. But the strength of the ONA Network, and their growing partnership with their federal government counterparts, gives hope that states across the country can meet the moment.