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

Posted December 11, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
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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