Five Questions with Casey: Irene Lee and the Foundation's Work on Immigration Issues

Posted December 11, 2014
Blog ireneleefivequestionsblog 2014

Irene Lee directs the Foundation’s work focused on ensur­ing indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies have access to eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty and start­ed our grant mak­ing around refugee and immi­grant fam­i­lies. Lee chairs the Mary­land Adult Learn­ing Advi­so­ry Coun­cil and serves on the task force for per­for­mance-based fund­ing in adult edu­ca­tion for Mary­land. She also was appoint­ed by Gov. Mar­tin O’Malley to serve on the Mary­land Coun­cil for New Amer­i­cans and has played a lead­ing role on a num­ber of nation­al pan­els and in efforts address­ing the chal­lenges of immi­grant and refugee families.

Q1. What was the ori­gin of the Foundation’s refugee and immi­grant portfolio?

Casey rec­og­nized that it was crit­i­cal to address the needs of a chang­ing pop­u­la­tion of chil­dren in this coun­try. Chil­dren in immi­grant fam­i­lies were the fastest grow­ing seg­ment of the child pop­u­la­tion between 1990 and 2007. Nation­al data from the Cen­sus Bureau showed that the per­cent­age of chil­dren grow­ing up in immi­grant fam­i­lies rose from 13% in 1990 to 25% in 2010. In 2012, one in four chil­dren under the age of 18 lived with at least one immi­grant par­ent. These kids rep­re­sent one-third of the 31 mil­lion chil­dren liv­ing below the pover­ty line, and that makes this pop­u­la­tion increas­ing­ly impor­tant for us as a foun­da­tion focused on improv­ing out­comes for children. 

Q2. What about this pop­u­la­tion drew your interest?

Address­ing the chal­lenges faced by chil­dren from immi­grant and refugee fam­i­lies is extreme­ly rel­e­vant in our efforts to reform the child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems and to strength­en neigh­bor­hood and fam­i­ly resources for chil­dren and fam­i­lies in high-pover­ty com­mu­ni­ties. For exam­ple, in our for­mer Mak­ing Con­nec­tions ini­tia­tive, 25% of res­i­dents in the tar­get neigh­bor­hoods of at least four sites (Den­ver, Prov­i­dence, San Anto­nio and Seat­tle) were for­eign-born. We rec­og­nized the need to address spe­cif­ic bar­ri­ers that immi­grant and refugee fam­i­lies face in access­ing ser­vices and in the design of strate­gies to help lift par­ents out of pover­ty while improv­ing ear­ly learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for kids. Even though kids in immi­grant and refugee fam­i­lies were the fastest-grow­ing seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion, they were being most­ly ignored in the nation­al conversation.

Q3. What did the Foun­da­tion learn about immi­grant chil­dren and fam­i­lies as it delved into this work?

We sup­port­ed efforts by sev­er­al grantees and by our KIDS COUNT team to col­lect data to raise the vis­i­bil­i­ty of bar­ri­ers fac­ing chil­dren of immi­grant and refugee fam­i­lies and to devel­op data-dri­ven inter­ven­tions. The four risk fac­tors we iden­ti­fied that jeop­ar­dized their odds of suc­cess were hav­ing par­ents: who did not speak Eng­lish pro­fi­cient­ly, who lacked U.S. cit­i­zen­ship, who had low lev­els of edu­ca­tion and who had lived in this coun­try for less than 10 years. Chil­dren whose par­ents had all four risk fac­tors lived in fam­i­lies with the high­est pover­ty rates. The data also helped debunk com­mon myths. For exam­ple, con­trary to what many believe, more than two-thirds of chil­dren liv­ing in immi­grant fam­i­lies are U.S. cit­i­zens — and there­fore eli­gi­ble for benefits.

Q4. What kinds of strate­gies has the Foun­da­tion used to address these issues?

We have sup­port­ed efforts to improve access to ser­vices and oppor­tu­ni­ties for immi­grant and refugee fam­i­lies both by expand­ing access to Eng­lish as a Sec­ond Lan­guage class­es and by ensur­ing that mate­ri­als are avail­able in oth­er lan­guages for par­ents to nav­i­gate the legal, child wel­fare, juve­nile jus­tice and oth­er social ser­vice sys­tems. This work is crit­i­cal so that chil­dren are not put in the posi­tion of hav­ing to inter­pret for their par­ents and assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for adult deci­sions and out­comes. We helped 90 fed­er­al agen­cies devel­op mod­el poli­cies and tem­plates to trans­late crit­i­cal doc­u­ments and offer tele­phone infor­ma­tion lines in mul­ti­ple languages.

Anoth­er key focus has been pro­vid­ing ser­vices to help immi­grant work­ers who send mon­ey to rel­a­tives in their home coun­tries avoid hav­ing to pay inor­di­nate fees for these trans­ac­tions. The efforts of a task force and part­ner­ships we helped sup­port result­ed in the first fed­er­al con­sumer pro­tec­tions for immi­grants send­ing mon­ey abroad and in a sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tion in the aver­age remit­tance fee.

Q5. What is the focus of Casey’s mov­ing forward?

For­eign-born par­ents rep­re­sent about 45% of all par­ents of young chil­dren who do not have a high school degree, which puts kids at risk of poor out­comes. So part of our work is now focused on reduc­ing lan­guage, lit­er­a­cy and cit­i­zen­ship bar­ri­ers that keep this pop­u­la­tion in low-wage jobs. That includes explor­ing work­force pro­grams that help immi­grants learn Eng­lish in the con­text of train­ing for a job in a spe­cif­ic indus­try, as well as sup­port­ing efforts to expand their access to the finan­cial main­stream through cred­it unions.

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