09/18/2012 03:48 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

A New Economic Growth Strategy for the Election Year: Integrate Immigrants

James Barragán

This election season, I have a suggestion for strengthening our economy that might not be something typically heard on the campaign trail: immigrant integration. Yes... you read that right.

A recent analysis -- the California Immigrant Integration Scorecard -- conducted by my team at USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration scores ten of the Golden State's regions by their ability to integrate their newcomers. And we couldn't help but notice that it was regions with the most resilient economies - Santa Clara topped the list -- that also scored high on immigrant integration.

For those of us in this field, this isn't particularly surprising -- and it's not just a matter of stronger economies attracting immigrants (although that can play a role). Previous research looking at immigrant presence and metropolitan economies has found that the share of the foreign-born at the beginning of a period is associated with more rapid GDP growth in the years that follow.

After all, immigrants generally have higher rates of labor force participation and are more likely than native-born co-ethnics to start businesses. When people are most able to contribute their full extent of human capital -- when they are welcomed rather than shunned -- economies thrive. And in California, where a third of the labor force is immigrant, promoting immigrant success is the right thing to do to promote our economic future.

It's also the right time. We have among the most long-settled population of immigrants in the nation and, after a meteoric rise from 1980 to 2000, the share of our population that is foreign-born is leveling off. For us, it's less about receiving new immigrants and more about incorporating those who have been in this state for so long and will continue to live and work here in the years ahead.

With that task in mind, the California Immigrant Integration Scorecard measures the immigrant experience in four categories -- economic snapshot (how immigrants are doing now), economic trajectory (how immigrants do over time), warmth of welcome (how receptive the host society is), and civic engagement (how involved immigrants are in civic life). We specifically look at 28 indicators in ten counties throughout the state -- the first such effort of its kind in the US.

Places like Orange and Santa Clara Counties have done well to enable immigrants to improve their economic standing over time -- while immigrants in Santa Clara as well as San Diego and Sacramento are doing well, economically, in general.

Los Angeles has a welcoming stance and its immigrants are making progress over time -- but with high housing costs and still absorbing a huge previous inflow, statistics on current income levels, rent burden, and English language abilities are low.

The East Bay does better than Los Angeles on the snapshot measures and equally well on the trajectory -- something sure to fuel the usual Northern California-Southern California rivalry just played out in Stanford's unexpected victory over USC!

Bringing up the bottom of the pack is Fresno: the poor result is a combination of a weak rural economy, limited civic engagement, and a social infrastructure that is underperforming on naturalization and a region that lacks sufficient English classes to meet demand.

But the purpose of the Scorecard was never to provide simple sound bites on who ranks highest. In fact, each region has something to learn -- there is no terminal degree in immigrant integration. So the real point of the Scorecard is to show which areas might have strategies others can emulate as they pursue a bit of friendly (and self-interested) competition.

As noted, Fresno has the most room for improvement and Santa Clara is the frontrunner, receiving the highest overall score, a 4.0 of a possible 5.0. While some of that is due to the economic fortunes of more educated immigrants working in the high-tech industry, Santa Clara has its fair share of lower-skill immigrants -- the real secret to its success is the wide variety of regional collaborations between governments, businesses, community organizations, and foundations designed to celebrate and promote immigrant integration.

It's also true that topping the comparative list can still mean coming up short. Across the state, academic achievement and English language learning is still too low. Partly as a result, we call for improving English acquisition for both youth and adults, raising rates of naturalization, and creating a single statewide body that can coordinate immigrant integration efforts and share best practices.

All this is key in a state where more than one-quarter of our residents are immigrants and nearly half of our children have at least one parent who is an immigrant: improving the standing of immigrants and their children will put us on the right track for a better future.

Immigrant integration is also the right track for the nation. Immigration -- a border issue -- is slowing and areas across the nation are faced with the opportunity to support immigrants so they can contribute to their communities. The Scorecard highlights places with best practices to draw upon.

What is often lost amidst partisan political rhetoric is how immigrants are a benefit and contributors to our nation. Their well-being is our well-being. It doesn't make any sense (or, speaking as an economist, cents) to pass over their ability to strengthen our economy, keep us in touch with the rest of the world, and revitalize communities.