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.