Immigration Is Still America's Greatest Asset

Immigration Is Still America’s Greatest Asset…

if we’re smart enough to manage it correctly.

by Lawrence E. McCullough                                                              
© Lawrence E.  McCullough 2010                                                       

* Edited versions of this article have been published as an op-ed in the Newark StarLedger (12/4/2012) and Community College Times (10/24/2011). First published in the Nov. 22, 2010 Hall Institute of Public Policy Newsletter.

EACH TIME THANKSGIVING ROLLS AROUND, I can’t help but recall my family’s humble arrival to these shores and the impact they had upon their adopted homeland.

My First People came to this country as scorned refugees not knowing a word of the native language. In fact, they arrogantly refused to speak anything other than their own tongue, preferring to live in secluded ethnic enclaves and resisting all attempts to be integrated into the New World culture.

Importers of deadly disease? Within a decade after landing, my people’s hygienic habits generated epidemics wiping out close to 90% of the host population. Prolific breeding ensured demographic edge; our own clan produced over 50 offspring in its first two American generations.

Talk about a walking crime wave:  in one horrific (but not atypical) instance, my illegal immigrant forebears perpetrated a monstrous home invasion that burnt alive an entire settlement of nearly 700 sleeping men, women and children. In addition to their rampant theft of land and economic resources, my people were religious zealots who enforced a harsh, extremist ideology within their group while demanding neighbors outside their faith be subject to a similar primitive sharia.

My immigrant ancestors were a straightup, bloody nightmare.

They were New England Puritans, whose epic nation-building exploits Americans revere each Turkey Day.

Specifically, they were Thomas and Elizabeth Holcomb of Devonshire, England, persecuted people of faith who landed in 1630 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, as uninvited guests of the friendly and soon-to-be-extinct Wampanoag tribe.

Five years later the Holcombs joined a breakaway dissenter group that settled Windsor, Connecticut, where you’ll find their names chiseled into the Founders Monument on Palisado Green close by Discovery Daycare and the Beanery Bistro.

They were present during the infamous Pequot War of 1636-37 that expunged an entire tribal nation; they may well have been in the gawking crowd when the first North American witches (a.k.a. political radicals) were tried and executed in Windsor in 1647.

Nice folks, my Puritan peeps. Twelve generations later, I’ve likely still got some bigtime karma to work off.

With historical hindsight, it’s easy to see that the Wampanoag and other Native Americans could have saved themselves a lot of misery by repelling every European newcomer boating ashore instead of welcoming them with feasts and wilderness survival workshops.

My Puritan ancestors simply did what immigrants always do after coming to a new country — transform it in a myriad of ways that alter the host society forever. 

In their case, planting seeds for the world’s first democratic society and providing mythic inspiration for generations of overeaters. 

Unlike the 1600s, today’s America has an entrenched yet flexible economic, social and political structure capable of accommodating change without cataclysmic consequence to either native or newcomer. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve learned how to blend cultures instead of obliterate them.

Yet you’ll hear commentators talk as if immigration is a freak weather system that will eventually drift off and bother someplace else. That’s not going to happen. Currently, the United States accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than the rest of the world combined.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, there were nearly 40 million foreign-born residents in the United States accounting for 12.5% of the total U.S. population and approximately 16% of the labor force.

Unauthorized immigrants are estimated to make up 30% of the nation’s foreign-born population, about 4% of the entire U.S. population and 5.4% of American workers. That’s not likely to change, either, no matter how many tough-sounding election-year laws are enacted to fence off borders or pat down strolling bystanders.

Here in New Jersey immigrants are estimated to make up 28% of the state’s workforce and constitute 40% of our scientists and engineers with higher degrees. A 2007 Governor’s Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy found that one-fifth of New Jersey businesses are owned by immigrant entrepreneurs, with immigrants accounting for nearly one-fourth of the state’s gross earnings. The panel determined that newcomers delivered an overall “positive fiscal impact on the state budget” and were less likely than the native-born to depend on public assistance or be incarcerated.

The fundamental immigration problem America needs to solve in the 21st century is not how to keep people out but how to more successfully and rapidly integrate them when they arrive. 

Immigration affects every aspect of life in every corner of the U.S. It is imperative we make it work to our advantage.

Two current strategies proven to accelerate immigrant integration are newcomer schools for youth and expanded citizenship classes for adults.

Since the 1980s many public school districts have offered voluntary special programs called “newcomer schools” that provide intensive education designed to help newly-arrived students transition into the mainstream education system and general American life. Courses consist of English instruction, practical skills training and cultural literacy and are available for grades K-12. Though newcomer schools are sometimes organized as charter schools, they are not intended to supplant public school education but enhance it.

Thousands of citizenship classes for adults are found across the country in a myriad of venues ranging from public libraries and schools to churches, community centers and private non-profit groups. Their curricula concentrate on preparing immigrants for the U.S. Citizenship Test.

Why not streamline the assimilation process by combining these two disparate endeavors into a coordinated nationwide network of New Citizen Schools to provide immigrants of any age with the basic information they need to become more productive Americans more quickly?

The New Citizen Schools could be housed within the existing educational structure of the nearly 1,200 community colleges that already offer quality ESL classes and job training programs as well as an ethnically diverse student body. The NCS program would be open to youth and adults, with students organized by age level and English-language facility.

Funding would come from a base of federal, state and county education budget allotments supplemented by contributions from private foundations and — most importantly — American businesses and their affiliated trade associations that profit from a large employment of immigrant labor, be it blue- or white-collar, high-tech or agriculture.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, allocated an estimated $65 million to influence 2010 and 2012 election campaigns. With its avowed intent of aiding American business development, might wish to re-direct its lobbying largesse toward a program like the New Citizen School project that creates immediate jobs and lays groundwork for long-term, economic expansion.

The New Citizens Schools would also work closely with a revamped Guest Worker Program offering immigrants what the GWP does not offer now:  genuine access to education and economic mobility and legal oversight to prevent abuses by employers or criminals.

America must secure our borders and citizenry. But fences are not enough. The New Citizen Schools would lay the groundwork for the only real security:  transforming immigrants into citizens who embrace the core values of the American social idea and providing opportunity to attain the American economic dream.

All well and good, you admit — but this is the Year of the Great Congressional Poor-Mouth Debt Ceiling Debate. Dangerous for any politician at any level to suggest funding for new programs, even if those programs promise to create significant benefit for all Americans by rejuvenating our economy, easing pressure on public schools, reducing community tensions and forging a more cohesive democracy as the U.S. strives to maintain a competitive edge in the world economy.

Those who complain about the cost of putting into place an expanded, focused framework of assimilation programs should consider what it will cost if we don’t have them.

The chief capital assets of a 21st-century economy are its people. America must have workers who are educated, skilled and healthy, workers motivated to add net value to the social and political system they share with millions of others.

Successful economies of the Future (which is here Today) will depend not just on raw labor but on the inspired, inner business vision of workers and entrepreneurs seeking better ways to get things done in a constantly evolving global marketplace.

The power to dream and the will to persevere against enormous odds are exactly what America needs at this point in time. Immigrants possess these qualities in abundance, from Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell and Albert Einstein to the newcomers of today.

Yes, they’ll change our society in subtle and occasionally not-so-subtle ways, but the society that does not adapt to change will inevitably decline and perish.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask a member of the Wampanoag nation. Next time you meet one.

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