Jorji Knickrehm, MPA '15, got her master's degree because she was interested in systemwide change. Finding out how Sweden integrates tens of thousands of immigrants each year provided valuable lessons for Washington cities and counties.
Knickrehm spent more than 7 years working at Washington CASH (now called Ventures), a Seattle microlending organization. Recognizing that nonprofits could not provide the scale of opportunities and systemic changes that government policies could, she enrolled in the MPA program. After taking Comparative Social Policy from Professor Sven-Erik Svard, she decided to research how Sweden, with its large safety net and strong centralized government, met the challenges faced by the large numbers of immigrants entering the country each year.
Sweden and Washington state are similar in population size and foreign-born makeup. Sweden's population is 9.8 million, with approximately 17% foreign-born. Washington's population is 7.06 million with 13% foreign-born.
"OneAmerica, a Seattle-based nonprofit focused on immigrant, civil, and human rights, was interested in knowing the 'choke points' for integration in Sweden," she said. "What stops immigrants from getting jobs, learning the language, feeling accepted? That formed the basis of my research."
Sweden accepts immigrants for humanitarian reasons, and last year, 81,300 applied to enter the country mainly from war zones in the Middle East and Africa. They gain immediate access to housing and schools. Integrating into the economy has been more difficult.
Thanks to a Seattle University international research fellowship, Knickrehm spent 4 weeks in Sweden interviewing researchers, city officials, politicians, including the former Minister of Integration, and immigrants.
"While Sweden ranks very high in providing legal equality and cultural rights to immigrants, it also ranks very high in unemployment rates for immigrants," Knickrehm said. "Only 51% of non-European immigrants have a job compared with 84% of native Swedes."
Knickrehm found that the most significant challenges in Sweden for immigrants remain language barriers and underfunding of retraining and job programs. The most successful programs combine well-organized projects, individualized plans for clients, cooperation and collaboration between agencies, and a high focus on jobs.
"Sweden has a strong safety net, but it does not have a large religious and nonprofit sector that can provide support services," she noted. "In Washington, religious organizations and social service agencies fill a vital function in assisting immigrants to integrate into our communities and economy. They also have varied sources of funding and are not totally reliant on government funding."
In her report "Turning Outsiders into Insiders: Public Policies and Practices for Immigrant Success in Swedish," Knickrehm drew conclusions applicable to both Sweden and Washington.
"Implementing labor practices that build on the skills of immigrants, especially high-skilled, foreign-educated professionals who are moving to both countries in higher numbers, is an important first step," she emphasized. "That would allow both regions to take full advantage of the human capital offered by new immigrants."