Governor Deval Patrick launched a statewide initiative yesterday to find ways to integrate immigrants into Massachusetts "as quickly as possible" at a time when their numbers are booming.
The New Americans Initiative, modeled after a similar approach in Illinois, calls on state officials, policy advisers, and advocates to hold a series of public meetings across the state and draft a report with policy recommendations by July 1, 2009. The Illinois effort led to expanded English classes and other services.
Patrick's approach comes at a time when immigrants' influence on Massachusetts' workforce, population, and schools is at its highest since the 1950s. About 14 percent of the state's residents are immigrants, and their presence in the workforce has doubled since 1980 to 17 percent. But they face serious challenges: More than 20 percent are not fluent in English, and studies have shown that most are ill-prepared for the state's changing economy.
Massachusetts officials expect wide-ranging testimony at the public meetings, from the hurdles that immigrants face as they assimilate and find jobs, to the impact on cities and towns. The meetings will be organized by the governor's Ad visory Council on Refugees and Immigrants; the Office for Refugees and Immigrants; and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the state's largest advocacy group.
"Massachusetts is and has always been a Commonwealth of immigrants," Patrick said in a statement yesterday after he signed an executive order creating the initiative. He is expected to speak publicly on the issue today at a naturalization ceremony in Faneuil Hall. "Although immigration reform and enforcement is a federal issue, today's reality is that states can and must find creative ways to better integrate immigrant and refugee populations through more coordinated services, including English language classes, job training, and citizenship assistance."
The governor's order drew swift rebuke from a group in Framingham that opposes illegal immigration for failing to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants.
"They're just going to put everybody in one pot and call them all immigrants, which is not right," said Jim Rizoli, director of Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement. "It's great that they do whatever they can to help legal immigrants in the state, but I'm not for putting any of our taxpayers' money into anything that deals with illegal immigrants because they're breaking the law. I don't understand how they can do that with a good conscience."
Richard Chacón, executive director of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants, said he expected that illegal immigration issues would come up at the meetings.
"There are going to be times when there's going to be very frank and probably some uncomfortable conversations that we'll have in different parts of the state," he said. "It's a necessity if we're going to come up with a meaningful plan for our refugees and immigrants and for our cities and towns."
Of the 907,000 immigrants in Massachusetts, about 175,000 are here illegally, according to a report by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, a nonpartisan think-tank, along with the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
The Massachusetts initiative reflects the starkly different approaches that individual states are taking toward immigrants across the nation. Illinois and Rhode Island, states that have similar percentages of foreign-born residents as Massachusetts, are examples to the contrast.
In Illinois, the governor issued a 2005 executive order with a similar name and approach as Patrick's to draft policy recommendations on integrating immigrants. One result: The state opened the Illinois Welcoming Center near Chicago, a one-stop shop for incorporating immigrants.
But in Rhode Island, Governor Donald Carcieri recently signed an executive order demanding that the State Police, prisons, and other agencies help the federal government be more aware on illegal immigration.
"States are not pursuing a one-size-fits-all solution," said Dirk Hegen, a policy associate at the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state legislation nationwide. "They come up with their own solutions."
Patrick's effort is so far funded with about $200,000 in private donations from the Carnegie Foundation, the Barr Foundation, the Bob Stewart Hildreth Charitable Foundation, and Partners HealthCare, Chacón said.
Patrick has grappled with the immigration issue since he took office last year. He overturned Governor Mitt Romney's executive order allowing state troopers to aid federal immigration agents and ordered the state's prisons to screen for illegal immigrants so that they could be subject to deportation.