Refugees Learn English — Then Buoy Kentucky Economy

It’s been four decades since Skip Cleavinger moved to Bowling Green to study at Western Kentucky University, and in that time he has witnessed a significant shift in the demographics of west-central Kentucky. A local refugee resettlement program and a livable community — with job opportunities, strong schools, and a relatively low cost of living — has brought in thousands of immigrants and refugees from across the globe, bringing change that has not only “enriched the fabric of the community from a cultural sense,” says Cleavinger, “but we are also thriving economically.” In Bowling Green, a city that’s home to such megabrands as General Motors and Fruit of the Loom, “we have more jobs than we can fill,” he says.

Cleavinger, who now directs the English Learner program for Warren County Public Schools, is working with other educators to prepare these new immigrants to help fill the area’s labor shortage. The school system’s foreign-born student body has expanded, and the population of students identified as limited in English proficiency has grown 182 percent since 2007. “In a district of 16,000 students, we’re approaching 20 percent of kids who are either in ESL or were in ESL,” says Cleavinger. He’s currently stretching his budget to teach English to more than 1,800 students. Add those to the 1,200 new Americans the program has already helped become proficient in English, and companies now have 3,000 potential new hires to help plug holes in the workforce that have gone unfilled by U.S.-born workers.

From an educational perspective, I think it’s great for kids to be around diversity.

Accelerating immigrants’ English proficiency also benefits the regional and national economy; studies show that a lack of English skills is the largest contributor to underemployment and a major contributor to unemployment in the immigrant population. Combined, these factors rob the U.S. economy of tens of billions of dollars in spending power and deprive federal and state governments of billions of dollars in annual tax revenue.

New immigrants to the Bowling Green area have also opened businesses and become involved in community philanthropy. “Our international community members fill positions of leadership in the community,” says Cleavinger. “They’re business owners and valued members of the general workforce.” In fact, immigrants in this district account for a significant portion of the agriculture, accommodation, food services, manufacturing, and retail trade industries, and are more likely to be entrepreneurs than are U.S.-born Americans. A few mosques have also been established in the area. “One mosque in particular is very generous to the schools,” he says. “One imam and his congregation are quick to respond to requests for support for families, such as for food or furniture, and coat drives in the winter.”

More immigrant and refugee students also means more jobs for American workers. Last year, the school opened an international high school to further accommodate new English speakers. “We certainly have a need for teachers,” Cleavinger says. “I have three open positions right now. We also have a need for training for our teachers so that they are better prepared to meet the instructional needs of English learners.”

Finally, Cleavinger says, international students have a positive impact on American students. “From an educational perspective, I think it’s great for kids to be around diversity,” he says. “My stepson wanted to go to business school and get a job in the global marketplace. He’s now a junior at the University of Kentucky, and I think his going to school in a district that includes Iraqis, Mexicans, Argentinians, Germans, it really enriched his experience as a student.”

Cleavinger would like to see immigration reform that opens additional routes to residency for immigrants already living in the United States. “If we know they are safe, and contributing members of this city, I don’t know why we can’t find a sensible path to provide them with legal status without sending them back to their former countries,” he says. Besides, not knowing what will happen to their families in the current political climate is not good for his students. “It’s certainly impacting their stress levels,” says Cleavinger. “That’s why we try to make the school a safe space. When they’re here on campus, they’re mission-oriented, focused on making good grades and trying to learn English. If I’m angry or frustrated about what I’m seeing in U.S. politics, one of the best things I can do is go over to the high school and interact with the students. Spending time with these kids always puts things into perspective. They’re so resilient.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…