A Nation Too Stupid To Transform Itself With Its Immigrants?
Above Photo: More than a dozen people protesting Arizona’s hard-line stance against illegal immigrants were arrested in Phoenix on Thursday, July 29, 2010. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
The millions of people in the United States who are denied equal rights because they are immigrants have vast stockpiles of wisdom and rich culture to share; they engage in more strategic and courageous activism than do non-immigrants; and without any doubt they would vote better than do the “legal” people of South Carolina if only they were permitted to vote. The mistreatment of these people shortchanges every U.S. enterprise and reduces civil rights, paychecks, public safety, sense of community, and basic levels of morality for everyone.
Read Lives in Limbo by Roberto G. Gonzales. Kids brought to the United States by their parents (driven by NAFTA or U.S.-backed coups or drug wars or just the general injustice of rich nations toward poor) often live in a segregated and impoverished world. But they attend U.S. schools, speak English, and have largely the same Dreamy expectations for their American futures as anyone else. In adolescence, they transition not just into adulthood but also into illegality. Most of these young people find out that doors are closed, that college will not include them, that employers will not hire them, and that at any moment they may be yanked right out of their lives and deported alone to a world they do not know.
The United States is famous for failing its teenagers. But imagine adding to the problems that a typical teenager faces the imposition of a second-class status and the prospect of being locked up at any moment. Teens in poor, African-American neighborhoods face serious discrimination and police harassment, and may be able to relate. But those of us who had many advantages and still had a hard time coming through to adulthood ought to be able to understand, as well, the tragic stories Gonzales tells of U.S. teens discarded by the United States.
In the exceptional cases, where the doors to college are opened, lives can be transformed. Free college for all would not just help create an intelligent and caring world, and not just crush the prospects of military recruiters. It would also radically re-shape the worldviews of immigrant teenagers.
Susan Eaton’s new book, Integration Nation: Immigrants, Refugees, and America at Its Best shows what’s possible in towns, cities, and states where people come to their senses, reject apartheid, and start behaving decently toward each other. As states have enacted cruel new laws, cities have appealed to immigrants to come and share in urban revitalization. Smarter states have begun allowing all immigrants to pay in-state tuition, as well as to obtain driver’s licenses. And numerous localities have begun finding ways to benefit from what immigrants have to offer.
Schools in Utah have taken the lead in two-way immersion. Spanish and English speaking students spend half the school day immersed in Spanish and half in English. Both groups of students are valued for their expertise and provide assistance to the other. Both groups excel academically. And they tend to become, socially, much more of a single group of friends — a process of integration that extends to their parents as well. Bilingualism is good for your brain and good for your understanding of the world. If your monolingual English-speaking children are attending school with lots of Spanish-speaking children, why would you deny them the advantage of learning that language? Sadly, most places do. Eaton suggests that one of several reasons for Utah’s relative enlightenment may be that its Mormon missionaries have spent considerable time living outside the United States. It’s hard to imagine anything that could better benefit the United States than for more people to have done that.
Eaton writes that Prince William County, Va., Farmer’s Branch, Texas, Hazleton, Penn., and other localities that have sought to keep out immigrants have suffered economically, whereas cities, including Philadelphia, that have welcomed them have benefitted. Eaton’s book looks at projects around the United States that have given immigrants a chance to contribute, including the training of multiple-language speakers in Boston as medical interpreters for patients. Participants in that program say they appreciate not so much the dramatically increased income their new job as an interpreter provides, but primarily the sense that people value something they have to give.
Little as I’m able to value Duke University’s basketball team, and few as will be the tears I’ll shed when Virginia beats it again, Eaton reports on a remarkably good initiative that came from Duke’s Center for International Studies. Because immigrants were effectively allowed to live and work and earn income and pay taxes in Durham, but not permitted to do all kinds of other things, including to create bank accounts or drive cars, easy targets for robberies were Latinos walking with their pockets full of cash. That changed, crime dropped, property values climbed, and all sorts of other benefits resulted when the Latino Community Credit Union was created. Not only were people allowed to deposit and withdraw their money, but they became able to access small non-predatory loans — not quite the economic boost of being born with Donald Trump’s father, but transformative nonetheless.
In Mississippi, Eaton recounts, the pushback against the latest wave of anti-immigrant laws has come from African-American leaders, and from organizers who have identified the civil rights struggle of the 20th century with that of the 21st.
In Hazleton, Penn., the Hazleton Integration Project has pushed back impressively against the bigotry that swept through the town a decade back. Its success has come through bringing people together, including in a new community center, and offering them all opportunities for better things together as one community.
Perhaps it’s too much to dream, but if such community building efforts ultimately succeed in persuading large numbers of people to stop blaming immigrants for the shortcomings of their society, the next step could be accurately placing the blame on the oligarchs who actually are responsible. If that day ever comes, the natives are going to want to ask the immigrants how one starts a real movement for change.