Cecilia Munoz on Opportunity and the New American Workforce

By Mark Espinoza
December 4, 2015
Cecilia Munoz and other women stand in a conference room in the White House

Last month, the National Immigration Forum announced an innovative new project to help increase English language skills among retail workers for whom English is a second language. The project, Skills and Opportunity for the New American Workforce, is being made possible by a one-year, $1.2 million grant from the Walmart Foundation.

Recently, we got the chance to speak with Cecilia Munoz, Assistant to President Obama and Director of the Domestic Policy Council, about her team’s own work to increase opportunity for the new American workforce.

How did you become involved with the White House Task Force on New Americans? What brought you to this point in your career?

Last year, the President asked his team to find ways to make the immigration system efficient while we continue to wait for Congress to act on commonsense, comprehensive immigration reform. The White House Task Force on New Americans, which I have the honor of co-chairing with Director Leon Rodriguez of the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services office (USCIS), is one of the key initiatives that resulted from this charge. The Task Force’s job is to make sure that the various agencies of the federal government are taking a specific look at what we can do to help new Americans fully integrate into their communities, and work together to make that integration process as successful as possible. As a nation, we are already quite effective at integrating immigrants; the Task Force is applying itself to this work in a way which we hope will lead to even more success by being deliberate and strategic about it, and by working with partners outside of government who want to do the same.

We’re greatly encouraged by the enthusiasm and support that this initiative has generated – both within the federal government and from the public. This September, we launched the Stand Stronger Citizenship Awareness Campaign, a national, multilingual public awareness campaign to promote the rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of citizenship among eligible lawful permanent residents. The campaign is a partnership between the Task Force as well as dozens of partners, including the media, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and local governments. It is an example of how the Task Force is working with the growing coalition of stakeholders who are committed to integrating immigrants into their communities and American society.

How would you define the “New American Workforce?”

It’s already well known that workers who were born outside of the United States are a valuable and highly productive addition to our labor force. The New American Workforce includes foreign-born workers who come to the U.S. through a variety of avenues – the legal immigration system provides an alphabet soup of different types of visas -- and the nation benefits greatly from their participation in the labor force.  Today, foreign-born workers account for nearly 17% of the U.S. workforce and contribute to a variety of sectors, ranging from service occupations to management, professional, and related occupations.

As the baby boom generation begins to retire, immigrants— the vast majority (78%) of whom are working age (18-64) — will account for a significant percentage of the net growth in the labor force. The integration work that we are doing is as much about economic integration as it is about social integration; we want these workers to be successful both for the well-being of their families and communities as well as for the larger economic health of the nation.

What role do immigrants play in the economic development of America at large?

The President’s Council of Economic Advisers has found that immigration benefits the U.S. economy as a whole. In particular, immigrants increase the size of the population and thus of the labor force and customer base, making important contributions to economic growth.

Immigrants are highly entrepreneurial and innovative. For example, immigrants are more likely than native-born individuals to start businesses, and a study by the Partnership for a New American Economy found that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. In 2005, over half of new tech startups in Silicon Valley had at least one immigrant founder.

Studies have also found that foreign-born workers obtain patents at two times the rate of native-born workers. Creating welcoming communities can help to ensure that our nation fully reaps the economic benefits of this vitality and creativity.

How can communities create a welcome environment for immigrants and longtime residents?

Communities play a vital role in welcoming immigrants by celebrating and valuing their diverse linguistic and cultural assets, connecting new residents to longtime residents, and building support networks to assist in integration and community cohesion. Like any relationship, the ties between immigrants and their communities must be a two-way process with shared opportunities and responsibilities.

The first step that a community can take to become welcoming is committing to bringing newcomers and longtime residents together, and helping the community see the value of advancing an immigrant integration agenda. The next step is to create a plan to expand opportunities for all residents, including new Americans. This plan should involve leaders from a variety of sectors – from business and labor to educators and social service providers – everyone must feel that they have a seat at the table to develop each community’s unique, local plan of action. And then we think it is important to measure progress along three critical integration pillars that the Task Force called out: civic, economic, and linguistic integration. 

In each stage, communities can learn from others. We also think the federal government has a role in supporting these efforts. That’s why we are launching the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign. Through the campaign, we are bringing local communities together with federal agencies and national experts like Welcoming America to create inclusive and cohesive communities. Already, 46 cities and counties have signed on as early acceptors, and we look forward to even more communities joining this effort.

Why is it important for companies like Walmart to create opportunities for upward mobility?

Businesses that create opportunities for their workforce are not only helping these individuals move up the economic ladder, but also are building the pipeline for future company leadership and more productive workers. Not only does that grow strong communities, but it directly impacts business growth and profits. But more than this, businesses that support and promote their immigrant workforce can generate goodwill, create positive work environments, and promote understanding.  It is a win-win for businesses and workers.