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GSSW Center Aims to Aid Immigrants' Integration

Immigrant Integration Lab Director Westy Egmont (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Nov. 29, 2012

Boston College, founded 150 years ago to educate the children of Boston immigrants, has embarked on a new initiative to help foreign-born persons make a successful transition into American democratic society.

The Immigrant Integration Lab (IIL), housed at the University’s Graduate School of Social Work, is a unique applied research center that addresses the critical issue of immigrant inclusion. The IIL draws on academic and clinical expertise to provide resources, studies and leadership to national working groups, local agencies and professional leadership that focus on immigrant integration.

Under the direction of Westy Egmont, who brings considerable experience in the humanitarian and social services fields, the lab seeks to identify avenues that affirm the worth and contribution of immigrants and emphasize the role of human intervention and the impact of good policy and best practices.

GSSW will formally launch the IIL with a colloquium for community leaders in the Corcoran Commons Heights Room on Dec. 14, which will feature a panel discussion on social workers’ roles in immigrant integration.

“The Immigrant Integration Lab is a timely initiative, given the well-documented persistence of disparities between the foreign-born and native populations in the US,” said Egmont, who joined GSSW as an adjunct faculty member four years ago. “Today’s new immigrants reflect different sociodemographic and economic backgrounds than previous immigrant groups and have been under-researched — even as the 39 million foreign-born population is expected to increase.

“Integration is a dynamic two-way process that requires both immigrant and native to accommodate each other, so as to build a robust community for the future,” said Egmont, who co-chairs the Governor’s Advisory Council on Refugees and Immigrants. “Often, it is a social worker, or perhaps a classroom teacher, who will be that first point of contact for an immigrant and thus guide the way into a new culture. The Immigrant Integration Lab seeks to help human services agencies recognize and strengthen their role in integration.

“While many think of America as the great success model in assimilating generations of immigrants, the hardships of the first generation grow with denied benefits, austerity decisions of governments and very new patterns of settlement.  Immigration remains a crucial political issue at the national and local level while integration remains relatively obscure and ignored.” 

At the heart of the IIL mission, according to Egmont, is a four-fold approach to immigrant inclusion known as CORE (Consulting, Organizing, Research and Educating). This involves ongoing engagement with social and human services providers to assess their needs in fostering integration. Through CORE, the lab will offer research, training and education to aid agencies, programs, institutions and professionals in developing successful strategies for immigrant inclusion in the country’s social structures.

“The establishment of the IIL reflects the continuing internationalization of the social work field,” said Egmont, “in that social workers increasingly encounter global issues and concerns in their jobs. The Graduate School of Social Work, which has been a pioneer in international social work, is a most appropriate headquarters for the lab.”
This fall, the IIL awarded its first Immigrant Integration Fellowship to Lyndsey McMahan MSW ’14, a former community health worker in Zambia with the Peace Corps. McMahan will join the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) immigrant legal services with attorney Erin Fricker — a BC Law School graduate — to provide legal services to asylum applicants and find a way to provide essential food and shelter for the clients. As an Immigrant Integration Fellow, McMahan will combine direct service, along with the larger research project of finding models of intervention and developing a best practice in the field. She will share her findings through a paper and reports.

Egmont is the former executive director for the International Institutes of Boston and New Hampshire, New England’s leading provider of educational, employment, legal and social services to enable foreign-born persons to become self-sufficient. He also served as executive director of the Greater Boston Food Bank, hosted a Sunday morning talk show on WBZ-TV for 11 years, and created a multi-media exhibit, “Dreams of Freedom,” about the history of immigration to Boston. He holds a doctorate from the Andover Newton Theological School.

“Focusing on the integration of immigrants reflects GSSW’s local and global commitment,” said GSSW Dean Alberto Godenzi. “The unrivaled diversity of today’s immigrant populations allows us to see the world through the eyes of others. To study facilitators and inhibitors of integration and naturalization honors our country’s tradition of being an open and inclusive society. It is extremely fortunate for us that Westy Egmont, one of the thought leaders of immigrant integration policies in the US, signed on to lead this effort for the GSSW.”

Egmont will present closing remarks at the Dec. 14 colloquium, which will include a keynote speech by Demetrios Papademetriou, president and founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington, DC, think tank dedicated exclusively to the study of international migration. Boston Foundation President Paul Grogan will serve as moderator for the panel discussion “How Can Social Workers Strengthen Immigrant Integration?” with Massachusetts Department of Children and Families Commissioner Angelo McClain, Boston Rising Executive Director Tiziana Dearing and Thrive in Five Executive Director Jane Tewksbury.

Other speakers include GSSW’s Godenzi and Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. Co-sponsoring the event with GSSW are the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and The Boston Foundation.