Immigrant Integration and Volcano Snails

by |

I recently learned about volcano snails, or scaly-foot gastropods. While not quite in love, I found myself deeply fascinated with these snails that have only been found at three hydrothermal vents near the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, in chemically toxic waters and temperatures reaching up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit. They survive–perhaps even thrive–on energy produced by bacteria that live in their throats, which convert chemicals from the hydrothermal vents into a snail-sustaining substance. The snails developed giant gills to absorb oxygen from the seawater to keep their bacteria healthy and iron scales on their feet to release the bacteria’s sulfur byproduct into the water. Talk about adaptation. 

Why write about volcano snails? 

In May of this year, I had the opportunity to travel to Baltimore, MD, as part of the research team on the New American Cities (NAC) pilot. For the past two years, the Leah Zallman Center for Immigrant Health Research (LZC) at the Institute for Community Health (ICH) has partnered with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) on a study of the NAC program, an innovative pilot offering individualized career services to refugees and immigrants in five cities across the United States. This partnership grew out of Dr. Jessica Santos’ scholarship on career advancement and a joint LZC-LIRS interest in building on and contributing to career pathways and immigrant integration literature. We visited Baltimore to interview LIRS staff; community stakeholders; and NAC participants, many of whom are refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes. We spoke with Afghans who recounted camping at the airport in Kabul, desperate to get on a flight out of the country, their names on the Taliban’s wanted list for the crime of interpreting for U.S. agencies. 

Over and over again, we heard about the rich and full lives that some NAC participants had had in their home countries, with family support, meaningful work, and a familiar language and culture. They were high-ranking government employees, directors of international programs with millions of dollars in funding, professors, medical doctors, engineers. And yet, in the United States, they found door after door shut to them, judged and found wanting for a lack of U.S. experience and English proficiency. Tyson Foods factories and Amazon warehouses might have some of the most overqualified, highly educated employees in the country. 

We also heard from other participants who had been forced to leave their countries in search of security for their family. With less education and fewer connections to draw on in the United States, and none of the structured supports offered to newcomers arriving through the U.S. refugee resettlement program, most of these participants made ends meet by cobbling together low-wage jobs in industries like food service, laundry, and manufacturing. For them, career advancement had been a distant, if not near impossible, dream before they heard about NAC. 

These realities make the New American Cities program even more beautiful. Through private funding, NAC serves immigrants and refugees who have been in the United States for up to 20 years–a far cry from the five year limit placed on refugee services through federal funding. LIRS has partnered with national organizations like Coursera to provide thousands of dollars’ worth of educational and training courses to participants, with the goal of building their capacity and empowering them to find and access resources on their own. NAC career navigators work closely with participants to polish their resumes, practice interviewing techniques, and look for jobs that align with participants’ career goals. NAC pathway builders meet with employers, American Job Centers, community colleges, and other institutions to develop city-wide infrastructure that supports participants’ career hopes and aspirations.

I see parallels between the volcano snail and bacteria’s symbiotic relationship and immigrant integration, which Grantmakers Concerned for Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) defines as “a dynamic, two-way process in which newcomers and the receiving society work together to build secure, vibrant, and cohesive communities.” The volcano snail and the bacteria work and live together in order that both might thrive in a fraught, pressure-filled environment. The volcano snail cannot survive without the bacteria; the bacteria cannot survive without the volcano snail–both need each other.

We know the contributions of refugees and immigrants to society. We know that newcomers have and continue to revitalize dying cities. We know that cities that have intentionally welcomed refugees and immigrants have flourished. Our own research and evaluation of the NAC program shows that cities that adopt the NAC model and invest in the careers of newcomers receive a 123% return on investment (ROI) after one year and a 1594% ROI after 10 years. Talk about value for money.

I admire the volcano snail for its ability to adapt to its environment–as I do the NAC participants we interviewed. They spoke of adapting to a foreign culture, learning a new language, trying out a new career. They shared their hopes of settling down, buying homes, and connecting with their neighbors, both fellow newcomers and U.S.-born residents. As we ask immigrants and refugees arriving here to adapt to U.S. customs and culture, how are we in turn adapting to and welcoming our new neighbors? 

The United States has an abundance of resources–more than enough for all of us. If the volcano snail and bacteria it hosts can make a home in the depths of the Indian Ocean, surely we can make a home for all of us here in this country. 


Read more about our research on New American Cities here.

Danielle Chun, MPP

Research and Evaluation Project Manager