America's Heritage Is Immigrant Heritage

06/26/2015 02:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

This month marks the second annual Immigrant Heritage Month, an opportunity to reflect on the historic and contemporary impact immigration has had on our country's economic, cultural and political life.

Although not lost on most Americans, the importance of immigration seems to be far from the minds of most in Congress today. Instead of creating a 21st-century immigration process, Congress has dithered in partisan and xenophobic rhetoric that holds us back rather than moves us forward. In the next 20 years, when we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month, we should be celebrating the country's commitment to providing the newest Americans with the skills and training to thrive, offering language learning for a global society, and building an active and vibrant citizenry.

These are the pillars of the Immigration 2020 Agenda, which the National Immigration Forum (on whose board I serve) announced last week.

The Agenda's five pillars are the foundation of a bolder, brighter America that harnesses all its assets for economic vitality, democratic energy and cultural richness. JP Morgan Chase has identified the skills gap as a major contributor to unemployment, reporting in January that a third of the country's unemployment rate stems from an imbalance between workers' skills and open jobs. Employers and employees benefit from investment in skills and training that improve employee performance and mobility while enhancing companies' success and competitiveness. With increased employability, all Americans benefit from economic stability.

Similarly, English language classes at companies, civic centers and public libraries help new Americans integrate into their jobs, schools and communities, creating more harmonious and diverse neighborhoods. English proficiency boosts earnings. According to the Brookings Institution, for people with a bachelor's degree, proficiency boosts median earnings by 30 percent. That rises to 39 percent among people with a high school diploma or some college but no degree.

And of course, learning English supports the ability of new Americans to naturalize and become citizens who can participate fully in our democracy, the greatest in the world. It will continue to be so only with the hard work, full participation fully realized contributions of our increasingly diverse residents.

No group of Americans is as enthusiastic about our country as the newest arrival; I know because I am one of them. I arrived as a student, determined to study and return to Belize, where I grew up. But I was won over by American democratic ideals, our robust civic infrastructure, and the possibility to advance my career through education and job opportunities. Like me, millions of Americans left their home countries to make our country what it is today.

At the heart of Immigration 2020 is a 21st-century immigration process that positions the United States to maintain its promise of the American dream and all it entails--no matter where you were born. But the Agenda doesn't stop there: Even without immigration reform that creates this process, we can advance the social and economic interests of all Americans through policies, programs and partnerships that draw on the potential of new Americans and serve our national interests for generations to come.

Immigration is not only our heritage but also our future. And just as new Americans celebrate and embrace their new country, we should celebrate and capitalize on their potential.

The Immigration 2020 Agenda offers the beginning of a roadmap that gets us there.