Two decades ago, Nevada was home to just over 100,000 immigrants and refugees, or 8.7 percent of its total population of 1.2 million. Yet as of 2020, the number of people in the state has mushroomed to 3.1 million, with immigration driving much of the growth. Nevada’s population is now 20 percent foreign-born, and the state boasts a diversity index of 68.8 percent, the third-highest in the country.
Demographic growth has driven tremendous economic growth—Nevada had the nation’s highest increase in gross domestic product earlier this year—and it has also exposed a need for programs and policies that proactively support the inclusion of newcomers in the local community, workforce, and economy. In 2019, Governor Steve Sisolak approved legislation to create a state-level Office for New Americans (ONA). In 2020, the ONA joined the Skilled Immigrant Integration Program (SIIP), an initiative of WES Global Talent Bridge.
WES Global Talent Bridge recently connected with Charina de Asis, director of the Governor’s Office for New Americans, to understand how involvement in SIIP has shaped—and accelerated—Nevada’s ability to welcome newcomers.
Following two decades of population growth and demographic change, Nevada is emerging as a leader in the work of immigrant and refugee inclusion. What does the success of your work mean for communities across the state?
We believe that when a new Nevadan thrives, the state of Nevada thrives as well. Fully including immigrants and refugees brings a net positive to the economy of Nevada. It means more business development and job creation, increased economic activity, increased revenue, community revitalization, and higher wages for all.
The commitment to this work comes from the top. In 2019, Governor Steve Sisolak’s creation of the ONA cemented Nevada’s commitment to the state’s immigrant and refugee communities, which make up a significant percentage of the local workforce. ONA seeks to break down barriers for immigrants and refugees to ensure their integration and inclusion into the economic, civic, and cultural fabric of Nevada. Actively integrating and including immigrants and refugees benefits families, communities, and the economy.
Since its creation ONA has served as a bridge between government stakeholders and community-based organizations to address barriers facing our community. It has also enabled interagency collaboration to make the services of state government more accessible and inclusive.
Started just two years ago, the Nevada ONA is still in its infancy. How has work with SIIP increased your capacity to develop programs and fulfill your mission?
Although Nevada’s communities and economy have grown significantly, we’re not fully embracing the talent in our state workforce. There are more than 87,000 immigrants and refugees with college degrees living in Nevada, yet nearly 40 percent are unemployed or underemployed.
The technical assistance SIIP provided enabled our office to tap into the knowledge of experts—and advance an agenda focused on immigrant workforce development in Nevada.
With guidance from SIIP, we identified three focus areas that affect the immigrant and refugee workforce in our state: (1) accessibility to occupational licensing for internationally trained immigrants and refugees; (2) lack of immigrant inclusion in workforce development; and (3) the lack of professional networks when immigrants and refugees move to the U.S.
You’re just getting started in this work, but can you flag any early successes that might be models for other communities?
As we started to build these efforts, three core challenges emerged. First, we realized that although immigrants and refugees make up a substantial portion of the workforce in the major industries in Nevada, they aren’t always at the forefront of workforce development efforts. Second, we learned that immigrant-serving organizations in Nevada hadn’t traditionally focused on workforce development. And finally, we observed that many organizations were working in silos, which hindered cooperation and collaboration.
Participating in SIIP helped us understand how creating a network of immigrant workforce development stakeholders could help address these challenges. That led to the launch of the Immigrant Workforce Development Group (IWDG).
Through IWDG, we bring together nearly every stakeholder invested in immigrant issues and workforce development. This collaborative approach had never been done in Nevada. Recognizing the critical need for workforce development to be contextualized and customized to the immigrant and refugee population, the IWDG is a first step to guarantee that immigrants are actively included in these efforts.
What’s next in growing the ONA’s work? What will it take to get there?
Building on the success of the network we formed with the IWDG, we’re now in the beginning phases of implementing the Nevada Initiative on Language Access (NILA) to ensure all state agencies have Language Access Plans (LAPs) that reflect the communities they serve. It’s essential for all Nevadans to be able to access information and resources in a language they understand.
Language access is central to the inclusion of immigrants and refugees in many ways, but especially in workforce development. We know that language access can help immigrants and refugees advance in their careers and climb the economic ladder, and so we’re rolling out these language supports knowing that they will complement our workforce development efforts.
Nevada’s population has been called the future face of America. We’re committed to continuing the ONA’s work as part of the SIIP alumni network, and to sharing best practices and collaborating with communities across the U.S.