The Immigrant Lesson: It’s About the Future

Summary: The legacy of immigrants to America is that we sacrifice now for a better future for our kids, and they’re right on it.

A lot can be learned from current immigrants to this corner of the earth. With faith in the future, risks are taken in transit to a baffling new land and a belief in the opportunity of America to create a better life for the benefit of children. Not just the wealthy who can pay a fee, Mr. President, but the ragged and the hungry, the “huddled masses.”graduate-2197406_1280

The high school in which I most lately worked was portal to immigrants for some years. Recent arrivals populated our English Language Learners program from the Ukraine, Somalia, Vietnam, and Mexico among others, while the sons and daughters of earlier but still recent immigrants from India, Korea, and the Pacific Islands, often born in the States, sat in regular classrooms and already looked and sounded the part of acculturated Americans, though in many cases still with a leg into their family and the old country. Often these were capable students and among our most solidly upward bound.

I was privileged to know a number of the parents behind my students. Some labored in menial jobs, some worked long hours in a small business. Many kids worked to add to family income. Money was not plentiful, but they made do. Necessarily, the kids had to be self-disciplined as well, in order to play their part.

Some were illegally in the country but clearly in a quest to carve a life and opportunity for their family. Their courage toward that goal and their endurance of a sometimes dangerous marginal life struck me as fully within the American tradition and in direct challenge to the negative stereotypes broadcast by our current fear monger in chief. Give me more of them and less of him.

This all sets the stage for appreciation of the immigrant story as it has been for millions of newcomers for centuries – a new life sometimes for a single person but more often intentionally for the next generation and those after.

The real exception, a wound so fundamental it endures yet, involves those immigrants who were brought as enslaved persons. We are not only a country of opportunity.

Yet this long view of parents who immigrate for the sake of their children got me to thinking about the paradoxical short view nature of our current culture and policy toward schools. Study after study demonstrates money spent now on at risk kids’ schooling saves future money spent otherwise on welfare, prisons, and the whole social network that intervenes in failed lives. Yet programs that would invest more now are politically dead on arrival.

Even these existing studies measure only the outcomes for students now in school, and do not factor in the fate of the unborn children of these current students, who will continue the cycle of poverty if the current cycle is not addressed.  One at risk child who completes an education and becomes steadily employed becomes a future parent who is more likely to have children who also finish school, and become themselves sustainably employed.

Supplemental dollars invested now reverberate through generations, through a multiplier effect that most current studies about cost/benefit ratios do not consider, and so understate the benefits.

Immigrant parents implicitly understand this dynamic in their love for their children; they are wise in a way our policy fails to be. Thus the legacy of immigrants, those parents I admired in my high school. It’s for the next generation, and the kids after them, and thus for us, too.

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