Enriched by Immigrants

Even as the Freedom Caucus and their MAGA friend demonize immigrants, it might be good to pause and give thanks for the immigrants in our lives.  Right now the most visible one is my DREAMer exercise instructor, from Mexico, who is a joy to sweat with. Then there are the people who come into my retirement community who tend lawns, clean houses, recover roofs, and work in the Health Care Center across the street.

A different set of immigrants enriched my education across cultures.  I worked with a  group of three women, married to graduate Students at Clemson University, from three different countries—Turkey, Libya, and China.  I was a volunteer teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). They were all Muslims, all had ambitions—one wanted to be a dentist—and they were anxious to become sufficiently competent in English to pas the Graduate Record Exam.  I learned a lot about their religion, the family life, and their experience of the United States.  We spent one class practicing English by reading aloud from the college newspaper!

A larger group of immigrants who affected the way I experience the world were students in my graduate classes in policy studies from 2003 to 2017 who came from everywhere—Mexico, Uruguay, India, The Bahamas, Nigeria,  Angola, Burundi, Argentina, China, Thailand.  Both my behavioral economics class and my ethics and public policy class presented interesting cross-cultural challenges, because the way the economy works in the United States is quite different from heir experiences, and their cultures offered different perspectives on ethical questions. I also had to recognize that one student from Uruguay or Thailand was not necessarily a representative of the “species,” brought home when I had two students from Nigeria, one Catholic, one Muslim, disputing the issue of reproductive choice!

A final group that taught me some useful lessons were not immigrants but also definitely not Americans. They were suddenly liberated citizens of the former USSR, whom I encountered on a two week mission to Bulgaria in the 1990s after the fall of Communism. While my primary role was to help them sort out the role of local government in a market system, we also traded stereotypes and puzzlements about each other’s cultures. We got used to hearing from certain individuals who wanted to use the question and answer time to attack the evils of capitalism, and my partner Jim and I had a secret code when we thought that was coming. Th code was “central casting.” We invoked it when the speaker appeared to look and talk like someone sent over from central casting to play the Russian. During our final session, I was on question duty when a man spoke who was the spitting image of Nikita Khrushchev.  As the translator prepared to turn his question into English, I whispered to Jim, central casting! Not So. The question was, “who is in charge of parking in your cities and how much do they charge?” So much for stereotypes!

We need immigrants to fill the gaps in our labor force. We need them to teach us even as we teach them, and both be enriched by the encounter. We need to seek out more encounters with people who are different from us because we have useful perspectives to share as they do for us.

May you be blessed by the presence of the strangers among us, and help them to become strangers no more.

An Open Letter to Senator Tim Scott

Dear Senator Scott,

I watched your political commercials during the recent campaign, talking about how far you had come as a sharecropper’s son to the U.S. Senate.  I’m sure you did your family proud.  But did you know that in the Union states during the War of the Rebellion (that’s what they called it), there was a lot of support for sending your ancestors back to Africa? Even President Lincoln thought for some time that blacks and whites could not peacefully co-exist after all that history, and perhaps returning them to their continent of origin would help to keep the peace. But most of them had been born on this continent, and many of their forebears as well, so returning to Africa was not exactly going home.

Going home? They spoke English. They had accustomed themselves to different religions and food and history. Some of their descendants adopted the words of the song Blue Boat Home, “I was born upon the water,” because the middle passage shaped them as a distinctive people with a new homeland not of their choosing but in which they could make a home. They built a distinctive but rich culture within the American land of diversity, and many of them, like you, were able to thrive and prosper despite all the obstacles that faced them.

Today the U.S. Senate is facing a similar dilemma.  Today’s immigrants, especially Dreamers, may not have cone across the water, or be brought here as captives, but they did leave behind a homeland, a culture, a language, a history  to start over.  And some of them didn’t even make that choice, because they arrived as children.  They grew up in America, but like your African ancestors even after the end of slavery, they faced and still face obstacles in seeking the American dream. Dreamers, mostly Hispanic, are the ones brought here as children, who never knew a homeland in Mexico or Central American of the Caribbean or Venezuela. They went to school with our children but had far fewer rights and faced the threat of deportation.  Yet they filled important gaps in our labor force, learned English, worked hard, enriched us with their cultural heritage while embracing ours.

So as you contemplate pending legislation that would provide protection from deportation for the Dreamers, wrap them in the warm blanket of your own cultural heritage and give them the kind of opportunity you as a born citizen have always had.