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On The Record Conference Call
On The New Americans Task Force

April 14, 2015 – Via Telephone (The White House)

MS. VARGAS:  Thank you.  Good morning, everybody, and thank you for participating on today’s press call.  As a reminder, this call is on the record, and it will be without embargo.  The participants will talk a little bit more about the new report that was submitted to the President on the New Americans Task Force.

First we’re going to hear from Cecilia Muñoz who is the White House Director of the Domestic Policy Council.  And then we’ll hear from Leon Rodriguez who is the Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Cecilia.

MS. MUÑOZ:  Thank you very much, Katherine.  And thank you, everybody, for participating in the call this morning.  You’ve heard the President say — and celebrate many times — that we are a nation of immigrants, which is very much part of what makes us unique in the world, and part of what makes us so extraordinary as a nation.

That spirit has very much affected his push for comprehensive immigration reform legislation, and it was very much the underpinning of the executive actions that he took last November to do what he can to adjust what’s broken in our immigration system.

One of those executive actions was a directive creating the Task Force on New Americans, which I am privileged to co-chair with my colleague who is with me on the call, Leon Rodriguez, the Director of USCIS.  And the task force’s job is to develop a coordinated strategy on the integration of immigrants and refugees.

The integration of the foreign born is something that the United States already does quite well, as measured by some of the more traditional indicators like English language acquisition or economic activity.  If you look at those measures, you find the notion that people from all walks of life become Americans and full partners in the American Dream is very much alive and well.

We get a lot out of the structure of our immigration system, people who come — by definition are sponsored by somebody who’s here — either a very, very close family member or an employer.  And refugees, of course, are resettled to deliberate federal policies designed to aid in their integration and their starting a new life in the United States.

So because of that structure, we get a lot of integration just from the way that we bring in immigrants in the United States.  But the President challenged this task force to think about what more we could achieve, how much better at this we can be if we develop a coordinated and deliberate strategy on immigrant integration that unifies the efforts of the federal government, but that also looks at what state and local governments can do, what external partners and stakeholders can do.

The notion of helping immigrants become fully Americans is something that all different sectors have a stake in.  It’s something that we already do quite well, but we also know we can do it much better.  So the task force has spent the last several months looking at what we do within the federal government and how we can coordinate our efforts.

We organized our work through three pillars:  civic integration, economic integration, and linguistic integration.  We engaged with stakeholders around the country, did a lot of listening sessions, asked questions, looked at the tools we have across the federal government, and identified 16 core goals and 48 recommended actions that the federal government can undertake.

And we’re going to continue the conversation with states, local communities, the private sector with philanthropy, and with immigrants and refugees themselves.  So to just highlight a little — some small pieces from the recommendations before I turn the microphone over to Leon, one of the focuses of the task force work has been citizenship and naturalization.  So the task force is both going to elevate the inspirational stories of new Americans.  For anyone who has attended a naturalization ceremony, they’re one of the most reaffirming things you can do as an American.

And USCIS is going to be engaging in strategies that make sure that people who are eligible for naturalization are aware of that to make sure that they’re notifying people about the potential eligibility for naturalization, and expanding citizenship outreach and partnership to make sure that we’re doing all that we can so that people understand the process and that the process is welcoming and available.

In addition, there’s a service component to the recommendations.  The Corporation for National Community Service is going to be promoting volunteer opportunities among immigrants and refugees.  We’re going to be encouraging new Americans to volunteer and serve and be highlighting the stories of those that do.  And HHS, their Office of Refugee Resettlement, and the Corporation for National Community Service, are going to be working together towards implementing a refugee AmeriCorps program to assist local communities, in particular with the integration of refugee populations.

One of the other pieces I want to highlight from the report focuses on economic integration, which is — again, the economic benefits of immigration are extremely well documented.  The entrepreneurial nature of immigrants and the strength that they provide to our workforce is also very well documented.

But it’s also clear what we learned in the Task Force has worked as the various federal agencies that intersect with — interact with immigrants and refugees around the table, is that there is more that we can do to even bolster the benefits that we receive and that local communities receive from the economic engagement of immigrants.

So the Small Business Administration is going to be highlighting new courses in targeted cities that have significant concentrations of immigrants and refugees, and focus on entrepreneurship.  There will be new toolkits to help new American entrepreneurs understand some of the financial fundamentals of starting a business.  And they also have a Made it in America campaign both to promote immigrant success stories, but also motivate people who are new Americans to take advantage of some of the tools and resources that are available from the SBA.

We’re also — again, to illustrate some of the ways in which the federal agencies are working together in a deliberate way on immigrant integration, is that we’re building it into the implementation of the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act.  This is an act which passed last year.

The Department of Labor and the Department of Education both have a role to play in the implementation of the new law.  And they’re going to be including in their implementation an effort to make sure that they focus on new American communities, some of their needs with respect to workforce development, and lifting up funding opportunities and best practices to make sure that the implementation of this law reaches all corners of the country and all communities in a way that benefits those communities but also benefits the local economies and the broader economy overall.

So the task force’s work has done, I think, a very good job of identifying ways that the federal government can be better engaged and that we can collaborate across federal agencies to be more deliberate in our efforts to help with the civic and economic integration of immigrants and refugees.

We think the end result of this will really amplify what we already derive from immigrant and newcomer communities, which is enormous economic strength, enormous social and civic strength.  I think we can enhance the sort of quality of renewal that comes when immigrants and refugees want parts of communities.  And we’re looking forward also to working with what’s known as the Welcome Communities Movement, which has sprung up around the country.  States and local governments are also recognizing the benefits of working closely with immigrant and refugee communities on integration.  And we look forward to being part of those efforts around the country moving forward.

And with that, let me pass the baton to Director Rodriguez of USCIS.

MR. RODRIGUEZ:  Thank you, Cecilia, and thank you all for joining this call.  As someone who lived the process of immigrant integration in the home where I grew up, I can say with great conviction that the benefits of citizenship run deep for individuals, individual citizens, and also for the country as a whole.

Research has shown that citizenship plays a direct role in successful integration of immigrants in the United States; it represents that final statement that you are an American.  Citizenship creates a sense of belonging, it provides for equal treatment under the law, it provides the ability to vote, among many other tangible benefits that come to individuals who naturalize.

What we’re seeking to do through the Task Force is to take a number of efforts that have already been ongoing, introduce a number of innovations and new initiatives, and to coordinate them in a way that really takes us to an even more effective level of immigrant integration.  And what that’s going to require is really greater action by federal agencies, and there are a number who are involved in the Task Force that produce this report, but also critically by states, by local communities, the private sector, philanthropic organizations, immigrants and refugees themselves, and the larger American community as a whole, as well.

In order to produce this report, we engaged — as Cecilia mentioned — in a process of assessment.  I’d like to take a deeper dive into what that process was.  We engaged with all kinds of stakeholders at the local and national levels.  We solicited recommendations from the public.  Uniformly, with all the stakeholders that we engaged, we received an enthusiastic response at the idea of developing a coordinated federal immigrant and refugee integration strategy.

We  are deeply grateful to the many who came forward with their input.  Just as an example, a national call for ideas in January yielded hundreds of really helpful recommendations.  Similarly, three national listening sessions drew a total of a thousand participants.  And I’d like to talk a little bit about the key themes that emerged from these listening sessions.

One, people really look to us to continue to maximize the use of media outlets.  And that means even more now than it used to mean because it’s not just radio and TV, but it means social media, it means really using the full range of media opportunities specifically focusing on those media outlets that cater to immigrant communities to help increase communication and information sharing.

And you’ll be seeing very soon some concrete manifestations of how we are implementing those recommendations, in particular, for example, in the Citizenship Awareness campaign that you’ll read about in the task force report.  They look to us to provide new immigrants with information quickly to help them better integrate into their community; to coordinate amongst federal agencies to provide information sessions on government programs.  They’ve asked us to identify creative and community-based approaches to help immigrants cover the cost associated with naturalization and integration.

And keep in mind that there are two cost components for most people in terms of the naturalization process.  There’s the actual fee, but often for some there are the costs associated with preparing for the test as well, taking classes.  And some of the examples that were given were micro-loans and partnerships with neighborhood credit unions.  And I can tell you that there has already been a lot of interest shown, and we’re looking sort of to turn that interest into action in the private sector to provide financial support for the naturalization process.

They’re  looking to us to create connections within immigrant communities to bring new immigrants — new Americans together with programs and services as well as other immigrants who can act as mentors.  Actually, just this past week I was in Philadelphia, where I went to the National Museum of American Jewish History and where they talked about early immigrant communities that developed mutual aid societies to help — where older immigrants helped more recently arrived immigrants.  So we’re looking to re-implement those sorts of examples as well.

We’re looking to expand the role of adult education programs, municipal governments, employers and civic organizations in welcoming and integrating immigrants.  And that’s where you’re going to hear us talking in many different ways about Welcoming Communities.  We already have agreements with Los Angeles, with Nashville, with Chicago.  We’re in the process of negotiating a number of other agreements, recognizing that one of the places where the rubber really meets the road with respect to immigrant communities is at the local level.  And we’ve seen tremendous enthusiasm from large cities, from smaller cities, from rural areas to really take leadership on immigrant integration.

Recognizing that immigrant integration is also a process of giving to America, we’re going to really build on the impact that volunteer service can have.  We’re going to reinvigorate the New Americans project.  It’s a way of really seeking to encourage volunteerism among all Americans, including newcomers.  And we invite people to visit www.serve.gov/NewAmericans.  Enter your zip code, and there you’ll find a number of local organizations that need volunteers and where we can realize this process.

Needless to say, this action plan is just the beginning.  The Task Force is at work, it is a roadmap of a series of implementation steps and aspirations.  Over the coming months, our member agencies will begin implementing the recommendations, including my own agency, USCIS.  And we’re going to continue that process of engaging with key stakeholders around the country.  This spring, we’re going to launch the Building Welcoming Communities Challenge, and that’s going to be a way to support existing efforts and encourage additional local governments to develop and implement integration strategies tailored to their community’s needs.  And in December, we have made a commitment that we will submit a status report to the President on the progress we’ve made since the release of his action plan.

So I stand before you as really a very enthusiastic cheerleader of the efforts we’re about to undertake, and I look forward to your questions.  Incidentally, for more information you can go to whitehouse.gov/NewAmericans where there is a whole bunch more to read.

MS. VARGAS:  Thank you, Director Rodriguez.  Thank you.  And while we wait, I just want to remind folks on the line that they can read the report at the White House website and also the website that Director Rodriguez just mentioned, which is whitehouse.gov/NewAmericans, where you can learn more about the task force but also read specific recommendations from the report.

Operator, we’re ready for the first question.

Q    My question was the timing of you guys releasing this report and doing this call.  There’s a hearing, as you know, Friday in New Orleans about the appeal of the federal judge’s ruling about the immigration actions.  Most of the immigration actions that the President announced last year cannot move forward now and are temporarily on hold.  Are you doing this call this week in part to sort of show that you’re able to keep moving forward on other areas?  Is that part of the strategy?  And then number two is, and related to that, is these actions are based on trying to get people naturalized and then give them citizenship at the same time.  Of course, the President’s actions could not go that far.  Is that a problem?  And are you going to be able to work with the immigrants that are taking part if, indeed, they’re able to on the executive actions to shield them from deportations, and how so?

MS. MUÑOZ:  So if you go back and look, David, at the original executive actions that the President announced on November 20th, he set up this Task Force then and he gave the Task Force a specified period of time to prepare our recommendations, and we’ve been working quite diligently to meet the timeline that the President put forward for us, which is why we’re producing the report now.

As you know, the litigation affecting other elements of the President’s executive actions is underway, but nothing in this report and in the work of the taskforce is connected to the expansion of DACA or the DAPA programs, which are the pieces that have been affected by litigation.  So this is essentially the Task Force doing what the President asked it to do and producing its report in a timely way.

And I guess with respect to the second part of your question, by definition the Task Force on New Americans is focused on legal permanent residents and refugees — people who have come to the United States legally and who are eligible to naturalize.  You’ll find in the report that there are large numbers of immigrants and refugees who are here perfectly legally who are eligible to naturalize, there are actually 41.3 million foreign-born residents in the United States.

And so what we’re really talking about are the economics, the linguistics, the civic integration of a large proportion of the population, who are a significant portion of our workforce.  So for those among the foreign born who are not yet naturalized, USCIS will be reaching out with respect to their eligibility to naturalize, and that’s just part of good governance that there are clear benefits and responsibilities associated with citizenship and that we’re hopeful that immigrants will take every step in the integration process and become Americans.

Q    I wanted to ask you — and you just mentioned it — USCIS reaching out to you people to talk — to encourage them to naturalize.  How is this different from any efforts that were previously in place?  And how, exactly, will they reach out to people?

MR. RODRIGUEZ:  I mean, it certainly does not abandon all the efforts to do that.  I mean, that’s the bread and butter part of what USCIS has been doing throughout its existence as an agency.  What we’re doing is really moving to the next level.  The current state of affairs is that last year we naturalized 800,000 people.  There are about 8.8 million people who are eligible to naturalize.  And it’s also important to underscore the fact that we’re not just talking about naturalization; we’re really talking about a holistic process of integration here.  But specifically with respect to naturalization, some of the new things we’re going to be doing or some of the reinvigorated things we’re going to be doing are the Citizenship Awareness Campaign that we talked about — a multi-element media campaign that’s going to focus on traditional media, on social media, focusing on media that specifically targets ethnic communities.  So that’s one element.

Another is to really continue to step up effort on the Welcoming Communities initiative.  And so we have a couple of strong memorandum agreement, as I mentioned with Nashville, with Los Angeles, with Chicago.  We’re in the process of negotiating many more.  And many communities are coming to us saying they want to do this, that they want to offer this welcoming hand.  So creating those sorts of federal, local partnerships is another thing.  We’re looking at the possibility of mobile — of various sorts of mobile strategies for engaging new Americans.

We’re also looking to leverage our relationship with our existing customers to notify them at different junctures in the overall immigration process that a choice they can make is to naturalize.  And so as individuals are looking to renew their green cards, we’re going to be developing different ways to deliver the message that instead of paying for a green card you can actually go ahead and become an American citizen.  And again, underscoring all the benefits that go with that.

So there’s really a lot of new tactics, a lot of new strategies that we’re going to be implementing here.

MS. VARGAS:  Thank you.  And I’ll also point to (inaudible) and other volunteer opportunities that are also new, including the refugee —

Operator, next question.

Q    Hi, there.  As the first question illustrated, part of the general national concept of immigration-related issues, whether its integration or anything else, is the legal stuff — the undocumented people, the DACA/DAPA process.  How did that whole separate issue of legalization, and people who are here without permission and so on, affect your results in trying to get a grip on integration.  And does your report address that — either trying to separate the two topics so that people clearly understand that you want to focus on people who are here legally and have recourse to naturalize and so on?  Do you understand what I’m saying?

MS. MUÑOZ:  We’ve treated these issues separately.

Q    But did it come up differently?  I mean, did you have trouble separating those two things in doing your survey?

MS. MUÑOZ:  No.  So again, as you heard, Director Rodriguez outlined that there are huge numbers of foreign-born residents in the United States and large number of people eligible to naturalize.  I mean, there are immigrants and refugees that are part of nearly every community in the United States.  So the Task Force focuses efforts on the legal immigrant and refugee populations and on, as you heard described, the Welcoming America Movement, efforts that the federal government can make to further the goals of economic and civic integration of immigrants.

By definition, those programs apply to people who are legal residents of the United States, who are in the United States legally.  So the Task Force effort was focused on that portion of the population.

Q    Hi.  Thanks so much for having this call.  I got a couple of questions.  One, I think there was an effort to try to, as part of the recommendation, to get a cut in fees or some kind of family plan — a way to make it more affordable to become a citizen.  And then also, I’m wondering, you mentioned trying to be more creative, but I didn’t see what has come about in terms of a firm recommendation on that.  So I’m wondering what the possibility of that is.  And if the answer is, you’re waiting for the two year — or the couple years review of fees, what are you really going to do in terms of trying to get that to happen?

And then on the second question, I’d like to ask, what’s the possibility that fees will be used to pay for anything that you are trying to initiate with this integration plan, considering that the integration grants haven’t really been fully funded for a number of years?  Thank you.

MR. RODRIGUEZ:  So your question was basically what are we going to be doing more specifically about addressing the cost issues that at least some potential new Americans face in the naturalization process.  And you correctly observe that part of that is examining the cost issue as part of our case study.  We’re not waiting — actually, that case study is ongoing right now, and the results and our decisions based on those results will be coming in the coming months.

In terms of the private sector, there are some specific ideas that have been talked about, which is different sorts of micro-loan programs, different grant programs.  The next effort of the task force is to really seed the development of those things into reality.  At the end, these are really private-sector investments, not government investments, but obviously we have a critical role, a convening role, a critical educational role to play in promoting those.

I’d also point out that one thing we’ll be doing before the end of the year that’s really going to, in many cases, make it easier for individuals to naturalize is we’re going to be providing for credit card payments for naturalization, and that’s going to provide a way, at least for some families, to space out the economic burden of paying for naturalization.

It’s also important to recall that a lot of the feedback that we get is the cost is one of several issues that present obstacles for people to naturalization.  That’s why we’re really looking across the whole life cycle in terms of our recommendations, looking at linguistic issues, looking at public information issues, making sure that people understand what the benefits of citizenship are, which is sometimes part of the barrier for folks.  All of that is part of a holistic, integrated strategy to promote naturalization.

MS. MUÑOZ:  And, Suzanne, with respect to the second part of your question, while we will continue to request additional funding from Congress for integration grants, it’s also important that the integration grants are not the only element of the broader integration strategy that the federal government puts forward.  So when you have a chance to look through the report and the 48 recommended actions, what you find is that while USCIS has played a very — it plays obviously a very important role and the immigration grant program has been important to this effort, that this is an effort to actually make sure we’re engaging the agencies all across the federal government in integration efforts and to make sure that immigrant integration is actually built into the core of their work.

So while I described what the Department of Education and the Department of Labor are doing under the new workforce law, what SBA is doing under its authority, there is additional information in the Task Force report about what the Education Department is doing with respect to English language acquisition, both for children and adults, and a whole range of other things.

The goal of the Task Force and one of the things that you will hopefully very clearly read in the report is that the federal government has a lot of tools at its disposal to assist with the integration process.  And what this report reflects is a really deliberate effort to make sure we’re using those tools across the federal government to do an even better job than we already do of helping immigrants and refugees make the adjustments and fully enter civic life, become economically successful, help their communities become economically successful, and hopefully take the final step to becoming American.

MS. VARGAS:  Thank you.  And that concludes our call.

END

THE WHITE HOUSE – Office of the Press Secretary
April 14, 2015