Immigrants in a changed nation

Those who come here do so for the same reasons, and in much the same ways, as they always have

August 02, 2010

From Phoenix to Philadelphia, Republican candidates are pandering to their base, proposing to round up and kick out illegal immigrants. Meantime, even as it deports far more undocumented workers than its predecessor, the Obama administration and its allies seek to frighten Hispanics into voting Democratic.

For the voters and politicians, it's the season of scare.

Meantime, I've been doing research in a very good public charter school founded by legal immigrants from Europe and largely serving Hispanic immigrants of all varieties.

This school cleans up on science fairs. It boasts among the best test scores in its state despite serving a student body more than 80 percent low income, more than 80 percent minority, and with more than half English as second language (ESL) students. I'd send my kids there.

When I asked why they do so well, school leaders credited their hardworking staff — but also hardworking immigrant families. Once the principal and teachers built personal relationships with the immigrant children and parents, they were willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.

I heard much the same story last month when interviewing a former school superintendent from a small Missouri town. When a new factory brought in Hispanic immigrants to take the toughest jobs — the ones Americans don't want — test scores plunged as their children enrolled. The superintendent responded with mandatory Saturday and afternoon tutoring for children who were behind. He told the parents that their kids needed the extra help. Unlike many American-born parents, the immigrants accepted his professional judgment. In a few years, the newcomers were doing well. Some are college bound.

The new Hispanic immigrants seem much like my own Sicilian-born grandparents, said to include one who was without papers — a "wop." This was a term of derision for Italian illegal immigrants, but to me it denotes the ambition of people who would not let national boundaries stand in the way of a better life for their children. Like other immigrants, my grandparents came here, took jobs "regular" Americans would not, saved their money and started a business, F&S Maranto Bakery, that now supports a third generation of Maranto children.

I love the energy and drive of immigrants, even the illegals. Yet I can understand why policymakers in Arizona and elsewhere want to put on the brakes. They don't want to become the next "Mexifornia," as Victor Davis Hansen writes in a book of that name. In my grandparents' time, immigrant children quickly learned the ways of Americans. They learned English, and as E.D. Hirsch writes in "The Making of Americans," they also absorbed the heritage and values of their new nation. American history became their history. When my dad thought about great leaders, he thought about George Washington, not Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The America that assimilated immigrants was a nation that believed in itself, secure enough to welcome newcomers to take part. Yet, in the 1980s, the traditional ways of assimilation fell away. From the right, businesses realized that illegals were the cheapest workers: They had no legal protection and could not unionize. From the left, academics and politicians disparaged as cultural imperialism attempts to teach new immigrants the English language and American history. As scholars like Christine Rossell document, many public schools gave up on teaching new immigrants English. The pro-business right and multicultural left made a grand bargain to encourage immigrants to enter — but not fully join — America.

This left immigrant children between worlds: wanting the riches of the American economy but never learning the codes of American society. As Mr. Hansen writes of Mexican immigrants in California, the first generation was just glad to be here, but the second generation compares their lot not to Mexicans in Oaxaca but to Americans in Anaheim. Mr. Hansen sees a second generation wracked by crime and welfare dependency.

In short, immigrants are pretty much as they have always been, coming here to make money and improve their children's prospects. The difference is how we react to them. We no longer treat immigrants as Americans in training but as cogs in a multicultural political machine or a globalized business machine.

So long as our institutions treat illegal immigrants as objects rather than people, it's tough to blame taxpayers for wanting to just send them back.

Robert Maranto, a former Baltimore resident, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. His e-mail is rmaranto@uark.edu.

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