This week, we celebrate Welcoming Week and Citizenship Week, a time dedicated to renewing our commitment to welcoming immigrants and refugees as well as raising awareness about the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities that citizenship affords. As a nation of immigrants, we know that much of our history and our prosperity are a result of our immigrant heritage and the hard work of those that came before us. We also know that welcoming people into our country is a fundamental part of our values. Communities that welcome immigrants represent the fundamental values of our nation: compassion, tolerance, and acceptance for all.
I know this firsthand because my family and I came to this country in 1979 after the Vietnam War. I was two years old when we left Laos. My father supported American efforts in Laos to stop the spread of Communism and we had to flee to refugee camps in Thailand. We stayed in a refugee camp for almost two years as our cases were processed for resettlement to the United States. We were eventually resettled in Detroit by Lutheran Social Services. I cannot imagine where I would be today without the institutions and families that supported us when we first came to this country.
On November 21, 2014, the President established the White House Task Force for New Americans, a government-wide effort to help integrate immigrants and refugees into our communities. Co-chaired by Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and León Rodríguez, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the Task Force underscores that “[i]mmigrants and refugees have always been a source of our nation’s strength.” Not only has the Task Force developed a multitude of tools and resources to support the economic, civic, and linguistic integration of immigrants in America, it has also led the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign (BWCC), which encourages local communities to engage in immigrant integration efforts. The Task Force also launched the “Stand Stronger” Citizenship Awareness Campaign to encourage the approximately 8.8 million individuals who are estimated to be eligible to naturalize to apply for citizenship and named four Presidential Ambassadors for Citizenship and Naturalization to assist with these efforts.
The work of the Task Force is particularly important to the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, housed in the Department of Education. Immigration is an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) issue. AAPIs are now the fastest growing racial group in the United States and in fact, the number of legal permanent residents (LPRs) admitted annually into the country from Asia now regularly exceeds that of all other regions.
To support the Task Force’s efforts, the Initiative assisted with a series of White House Regional Convenings on New Americans this year. In April, we partnered with the city of San José, CA to host the 5th White House Regional Convening on New Americans as part of the BWCC to discuss how immigrants can thrive in Silicon Valley. The convening featured discussions on key issues and challenges for immigrant and refugee communities, and community leaders and federal agency representatives shared best practices for supporting career pathways for immigrant families, fostering entrepreneurship and small business growth, creating welcoming communities through family engagement, strengthening pathways to naturalization, and advancing access to affordable and safe housing. For the tenth and final White House Regional Convening on New Americans, in June 2016, the Initiative partnered with the City of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to convene nearly 100 federal, state, and local government officials and leaders from the business, philanthropic, and advocacy communities. Altogether, the ten White House Regional Convenings brought together more than 850 leaders across the country in Los Angeles, CA; Houston, TX, Miami, FL; Atlanta, GA; San José, CA; Boston, MA; Dearborn, MI; Denver, CO; Santa Fe, NM; and Seattle, WA.
The Initiative’s Regional Network, comprised of more than 250 employees from 44 federal government agencies and located in communities across the country, has also been active in promoting immigrant integration. In the first half of 2016, the Regional Network hosted or co-hosted 15 different events related to immigrant integration, ranging from a Vietnamese workers’ rights workshop in San José, CA to a New American Business Bootcamp in St. Paul, MN. Regional Network teams are also currently organizing upcoming naturalization outreach events in Charlotte, NC; Las Vegas, NV; and Phoenix, AZ—new destination areas for AAPI immigrants—to encourage AAPIs who are eligible to naturalize to apply for citizenship. In addition, the Regional Network partnered with USCIS to co-host events in Las Vegas, NV; San Diego, CA; Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; New York, NY; and Jersey City, NJ to promote the Filipino WWII Veterans Parole (FWVP) program.
The Initiative has also had the great privilege of speaking at two recent naturalization ceremonies. I recently had the honor of congratulating 400 new Americans at a naturalization ceremony in Fresno, CA. Just months earlier, Paul M. Igasaki, Chair and Chief Judge of the Administrative Review Board at the U.S. Department of Labor, gave remarks at a naturalization ceremony at the Manzanar National Historical site in California. Judge Igasaki’s remarks were particularly poignant, as his parents were interned during WWII along with other Japanese immigrants and citizens in camps like Manzanar. In his remarks, Judge Igasaki noted the importance of immigration to our national identity by stating: “With every new immigrant and every new citizen, our nation is transformed […] diversity is our greatest strength.”
Embracing the immigrant experience is at the core of our AAPI identity. We are grateful to the White House Task Force on New Americans for spearheading these important efforts to welcome and embrace the New Americans among us. But more importantly, we are grateful to communities on the ground that prioritize building welcoming communities and to the immigrants and refugees who make our nation a better place.