“Love, war, and work. These are the three reasons most people emigrate,” says Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, who has devoted his academic career to studying immigration. People who emigrate do so to reunite with family members they love. Or they leave because their country is ravaged by war and they flee persecution and destruction. Or they emigrate to find work because they need it and the prospects in their own country are bleak.
Suarez-Orozco was the director of Harvard’s Immigration Project before moving to New York University, where he founded its Institute for Globalization and Education. He says that the current immigration phenomenon is unprecedented, with as many as 185 million immigrants on the move last year in the largest migratory wave ever, which affects not only the United States, but the entire world. Man-made disasters of war and poverty have joined natural disasters in moving hundreds of millions of people across the globe through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.
Assimilating immigrants into American culture is not a new phenomenon. What began here as a culture built on largely British roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries successfully assimilated millions of German, Irish, Italian, Slavic, Asian and other immigrants, each wave of which created new pressure points in our cities and schools. Through the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries these newcomers to America, many of whom had little education and spoke other languages, become productive assets for the nation, usually in the course of two generations.
The question is whether America can do the same with the new wave of immigrants from the most recent quarter-century.
The new Congress will wrestle with setting the legal parameters for immigrants. The questions that philanthropists need to consider go beyond the political arena into the private sector and civil society. These are aspects of this situation that the philanthropic community is uniquely qualified to address.
What approaches can philanthropists take in a forward-thinking strategy to turn the immigrants who are here into net assets, rather than potential liabilities for the country? Good answers to this question could change the parameters of the immigration debate significantly, while strengthening the country.
More Come Here Every Year
We’re a nation of immigrants, but the tempo is picking up and the source is shifting. The Center for Immigration Studies says that about 1.5 million immigrants have been coming to the U.S. every year, including both legal and illegal. There are currently more than 35 million immigrants in the U.S., according to the center. Of those, between 9.6 million and 9.8 million are undocumented, center statistics indicate. Other estimates of undocumented immigrants range to 12 million and more.
What has changed apart from numbers, since the waves of new arrivals in the 1800s, is the origin of immigrants to the United States. In 1880, 86.2 percent of the foreign-born population came from Europe. In 2000, only 15.8 percent came from Europe, while 51.7 percent came from Latin America and 26.4 percent came from Asia.
In the transatlantic migration of the 1880s, large numbers of new workers and consumers were needed and absorbed. Today, immigration supporters and opponents argue over whether a similar need exists, with proponents pointing to a demand for more workers in nursing, construction, roofing, masonry and service industries such as food preparation.
Whatever the need, the presence of immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, has real costs. Institutions on the front line still face problems. Hospitals and schools are two such institutions, and they bear the brunt of the influx. Philanthropists have the opportunity to strengthen or create solutions that are emerging in these sectors.
Uninsured Are Strapping the Emergency Rooms
Hospitals are groaning under the burden of immigrants who are uninsured and use the emergency room as their primary healthcare provider. Undocumented immigrants are not the only offenders, but they constitute a significant enough problem that a few thinkers are coming up with better alternatives.
The problem is that people who lack health insurance put off any care until the need is severe, which inevitably means it is also more costly and life-threatening. Preventive care saves both lives and money. Healthy people are an asset for a country where they can work to provide for themselves and their families.
In Texas, the Harris County Hospital system provided an estimated $97 million in care to undocumented immigrants in 2005. The Mexican Consulate fields nearly 100,000 calls each year, many of them medically related. So the Mexican Consulate joined forces with two Houston hospitals to create a medical information center to help immigrants get the help they need before the problem is so acute that the emergency room is their only option. The Bank of America made a grant of $100,000 to create the new center, which is housed at the Mexican Consulate in Houston. The Texas Children’s Hospital and St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System will provide information on preventing and detecting diabetes, which is a serious danger if untreated. Callers can get information about where to get vaccinations for children, or the location of nonprofit clinics that treat the uninsured.
“We’d rather take care of these kids in the community than see them get sick and end up in the emergency room,” Ayse McCracken, president of Texas Children’s Pediatric Associates, told the Houston Chronicle. “We want to make sure they have access to quality preventative care.”
Administrators of the group of Seton Family of Hospitals in Austin, Texas, recently concluded it would cost less to give preventive care to uninsured patients than to handle repeated trips to the emergency room. So they are revamping their program to provide care to patients lacking medical coverage who suffer from ailments like diabetes, regardless of their ability to pay. While the Seton decision was not prompted solely by the needs of immigrants, it will affect those in Austin seeking care.
The Seton hospitals are joining the ranks of others who have recognized that America needs a better solution than the emergency room for the uninsured. Bethesda Clinic in Tyler, Texas, is part of a pilot group of faith-based clinics collaborating to offer health care to the working poor, including those who are uninsured. Founded with the First Baptist Church in Tyler, Bethesda is now supported by a coalition of churches. Health professionals provide a full range of services, regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.
The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word just sold the Christus St. Joseph Hospital in Houston and are refocusing their resources on smaller community-based clinics to serve the poor and uninsured. Their flagship model, after which they want to pattern others, is the Christus SW Community Center. The innovative clinic is located in the most densely populated area of Houston, serving immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, as well as Africa. The clinic began with a focus on maternity care, which can make all the difference in having a healthy baby. Preventive measures aren’t expensive, but complicated births are. Building on success serving the mothers, the clinic expanded its service to their families, again emphasizing preventive care.
A visit through the attractive facility finds one staffer explaining the food pyramid to a family, while another across the hall demonstrates preparation of healthy meals in an on-site kitchen. An expectant mother learns exercises in a classroom, while her children are cared for in a cheerful nursery. A car is built into the wall in what appears to be a whimsical touch of décor, but actually serves real-life practice in how to use a car seat for infants. Families that receive the instruction get a donated car seat to take home. Because there is a clear link between literacy, employment and health, the center offers ESL and literacy instruction to equip adults. The entire approach embraces the whole person and the whole family. And it shows promise for other communities seeking ways to serve the indigent, whatever their background.
The faith community is stepping up in other ways to help meet the medical needs of immigrants. The Catholic Migration Office in Brooklyn offers health education to refugees and immigrants in Chinese, Creole, Haitian, and Spanish to introduce preventive measures, including neo-natal care and monitoring blood pressure. The New York Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded that providing a private form of health care would be the best way to step into the breach. They founded Fidelis Care in 1993 as a low-cost insurance company that accepts the uninsured—including immigrants and refugees. Here is an example of a private sector solution that comes at no cost to the public to meet a pressing need in a population that would otherwise pose a potential burden.
Education and English are the Tickets for Success
Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “the bond of language is perhaps the strongest and most lasting that can unite men.” Newcomers to America need to learn English. Marcelo Suarez-Orozco directed one of the most thorough longitudinal studies of immigrants to the U.S. In that study, he writes in Children of Immigration, that when 500 children of immigrants in New York and California were asked whether they thought learning English is important, “the overwhelming majority—99 percent—responded with a resounding yes.”
While it is possible for first-generation immigrants to survive with minimal English skills in their neighborhood, the evidence indicates that “English rapidly becomes the dominant language for the vast majority of children of immigrants,” according to Suarez-Orozco. The second generation makes the transition, as it has historically. Maintaining a second or even a third language spoken at home is no hindrance to becoming fluent in English.
It has gotten harder to make the transition into bilingual education in schools that are brimming with international students. What used to be an immersion process in a predominantly English-speaking school may not be possible in cities where more than 100 languages are spoken in the school district, as is the case in Fresno, California. Some of the elementary schools in Houston are almost entirely filled with Spanish-speaking children, and others have large numbers of Vietnamese or Nigerian children, while in New York there might be more Chinese or Haitian. It makes teaching a real challenge.
But learning English is not the only hurdle for immigrants. Getting a sound overall education is crucial for success in the American economy. A century ago, it was possible to get on the lowest rung without higher education and work your way up the ladder, but that is no longer the case. The typical success story of an uneducated Irishman or Italian who worked his way up from entry-level blue collar work to a management position is a tale of the past. Instead of a ladder, the current economy is an hourglass shape: lots of jobs at the bottom for unskilled labor, then a thin stem in the middle, and many jobs at the top for those with higher education.
While there are more educational opportunities in the U.S. than in many of the countries from which today’s immigrants have come, their access to the better schools is limited. Public schools in the low-rent neighborhoods often don’t deliver a quality education. Immigrants and inner-city kids are stuck in the same plight, often as neighbors in the same scruffy parts of town.
In New York, the Children’s Aid Society (www.childrensaidsociety.org) is one of the nation’s oldest philanthropic organizations. It was founded in 1853 by Presbyterian minister Charles Loring Brace to assist orphans and children on the streets of New York, three-quarters of whom were children of immigrants. Since then, Children’s Aid has served the indigent young in many ways, and as New York has remained a gateway to America for the world, many of the youngsters it serves are still children of immigrants.
One of their many projects has been the creation of Family Resource Centers in a number of New York City public schools, which offer parents help filling out applications for immigration or naturalization, as well as access to ESL and GED classes, job counseling, housing assistance, legal aid, emergency food, computer training, or workshops on family budgeting and parenting.
The organization also offers school-based health centers in five locations in the Bronx, Washington Heights, and Harlem, which provide what is often the only health care available to the children they serve. Children’s Aid runs community schools in places like Washington Heights, which was a Jewish neighborhood more than a generation ago. Today 90 percent of the children in the school come from the Dominican Republic. The Children’s Aid Society funds initiatives that keep the schools open till 9 p.m. to teach parents English and citizenship.
When Henry Kissinger went back to his old neighborhood in Washington Heights to visit middle school kids there, he reminded them that he had lived there as a refugee from Germany, working in a shaving brush factory.
A Bridge to Achievement: Puente Learning Centers
While Sister Jennie Lechtenberg was tutoring first and second grade children from the public schools in Boyle Heights, California, in the 1980s, she discovered that the lag in literacy for many of the children was linked to their parents. The neighborhood on the east side of Los Angeles was one of the most ethnically diverse in the state with a concentration of immigrants, many of whom lacked English proficiency and education.
Sr. Jennie, who had been an educator in the Catholic school system, decided that a multigenerational educational approach was what was needed to give parents the ability to help themselves and their children. People United to Enrich the Neighborhood Through Education (PUENTE) was birthed by a determined woman with a big vision. The acronym is the Spanish word for bridge, and PUENTE (www.puente.org) has served as a bridge to achievement for thousands of people in the years since.
Sr. Jennie is convinced that “one of the most important gifts we can give to any human being is the opportunity to help themselves so they can participate in family, community, and the economy. And it all begins with education.” Her strategy invites in parents to learn as well as children, fostering the achievement of all of them.
She began with English instruction and has added multiple layers to that foundation in the years since. Way ahead of the wave, she made the bold move in 1987 to utilize cutting-edge computer technology to teach. Sr. Jennie is convinced that achievement and self-sufficiency “begin with communication and therefore language, and also the language of technology. They can’t function without it.”
Sr. Jennie is quick to spot opportunities and speak her mind. She served on a commission for the Los Angeles Times with Richard Riordan to put together computer labs throughout the community. She wanted one for the families she was teaching. When Riordan suggested there was one down the street they could use, she said no. “The poor are tired of being Second Hand Rose. If you don’t do it, somebody else will,” the nun told him. The man who was to become the mayor of Los Angeles heard her loud and clear. “And we have been great friends since,” she says with a chuckle. She got her computer lab from the Times, and the Riordan Foundation matched it with one for children.
As the classes grew to bursting for pre-schoolers, after-school programs and adult education, it was clear PUENTE needed a sizeable building of its own. Sr. Jennie spotted a piece of property in the neighborhood and asked Riordan to look at it. He agreed it was a good location. Then she asked him to buy it for her, and he didn’t flinch at the $2.1 million price tag.
The stopgap campus consisted of doublewide trailers on the property until the team could raise the money to build. When they did, they did it right. The innovative architecture is a beacon of hope for the neighborhood and a symbol of the quality of all that is imparted within. “It’s a beautiful building second to none, with equipment second to none,” Sr. Jennie says with satisfaction. “It gives the student who hasn’t had great opportunity to use the tools everybody else is using, not in a lesser fashion.” The quality of the facility and the dignity of the people served there are linked.
Boyle Heights, just east of downtown L.A., has been a magnet for diverse immigrants since the early-twentieth century. Today it is primarily Latino, with Mexican-Americans who have been there for generations, as well as recent immigrants and refugees from South and Central America.
PUENTE had been so successful in Boyle Heights that they were invited to calm the roiled waters in South Central Los Angeles, which has a different demographic mix—roughly half African-American and half from Central America. The unique volatility of South Central L.A. made it a tinderbox in the wake of the Rodney King incident in 1992.
The ARCO Foundation offered land where a service station had burned down in the riots. Sr. Jennie asked for the title and three years’ operating funds to launch, and the deal was struck.
Considering the different demographics, she canvassed the neighborhood with her colleague, Luis Marquez, to ask residents what they needed, rather than parachuting in with a ready-made solution. When they said they wanted computer skills and help getting jobs, she said “You’ve got it.” The start-up campus was housed in trailers again, until the plans and funding for the new building coalesced. When they did, the architecture soared as a phoenix from the ashes.
From these two campuses, PUENTE now serves 2,500 students every day: 300 in preschool and kindergarten, 150 after school, 150 in high school, and 1,900 adults. With a staff of 60 and an annual budget of $3.5 million, PUENTE is us-ing innovative computer-based technology in six levels of English instruction, high school tutorials, preparation for the SAT, and adult reading improvement. Some of the residents of South Los Angeles wanted to learn Spanish to communicate with their Latino neighbors, so Spanish as a Second Language was introduced there, building linguistic bridges. Classes in keyboarding piggyback with computer-based language instruction, giving participants a double competency when they complete the courses. Courses in public speaking build confidence, while instruction in computer applications builds technical competency.
A preschool readiness program and charter kindergarten are equipping youngsters for school on both campuses, and they are having a remarkable impact on language development for the youngsters. According to a report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “All of the students who entered preschool or kindergarten speaking little or no English ended the year functionally bilingual.” And 100 percent of their parents participated in adult education classes or as volunteers.
The results for high school students are equally impressive. The dropout rate for teenagers in South and East Los Angeles is more than 50 percent, and the risk of gang participation or crime increases dramatically for them. The PUENTE high school tutorial program and SAT preparation course set the bar high, encouraging youngsters to stay in school and aim for higher education. Participants boosted their SAT scores by as much as 240 points last year, and they are staying in school to graduate.
Getting the parents engaged is a central part of PUENTE strategy. “They can’t just drop their kids and say see you in June,” says Sr. Jennie. “We invite them to take classes themselves.” Luis Marquez, who serves as PUENTE’s vice president, says “parents are the child’s first teachers.” Improving their capability is the key to success that spans generations, strengthening individuals and families.
The gap between children’s knowledge of English and that of their parents undermines immigrant families, decreasing the rightful role of parental leadership. Parents’ ability to adequately support the family is also crucial, and the classes PUENTE offers in job readiness, coupled with placement services, have built confidence and opened doors for adults who are succeeding in their new positions. Some are learning to repair computers, while others are working with local health clinics to take the first steps toward learning medical transcription. PUENTE graduates have broken out of minimum-wage jobs to get on a career track, and are now employed in banks, insurance companies, schools, nonprofits, law firms and businesses throughout L.A.
“We have to think about the people who are here,” says Sr. Jennie. “We have a population that is uneducated and it is affecting all of us—our family life, our economy, our youth. Our kids are dropping out, we have gang problems as they are turning toward each other. Our adults can’t get good jobs. We have to educate people, including the adults, for them to have productive lives.”
Creating Hope through Schools, Jobs, and Homes: Nueva Esperanza
Education, faith, jobs, and home ownership are four cornerstones of a successful life, according to Rev. Luis Cortes, the founder of Nueva Esperanza in Philadelphia (www.nuevaesperanza.org). He is building assets for Latinos in each of these areas through the church as well as the community development corporation he founded in 1987. Nueva Esperanza provides a charter school academy and junior college, incubation for small businesses, and on-ramps for first-time home owners.
What they are doing is at the cutting edge of a significant Latino movement nationally. Cortes preaches a message of holistic renewal, addressing both spiritual and material needs, with a strong emphasis on self-help for Latinos. “We start with faith and create institutions around which others can build,” he explains. The results are impressive.
Slightly more than half the Latinos graduate from high school in the U.S., leaving the others at a permanent disadvantage in the hourglass economy. Nueva Esperanza founded a charter high school that now enrolls 600 students, utilizing English, Spanish and technology to equip kids to succeed. The Nueva Esperanza Center for Higher Education is a junior college, providing post-secondary education for two years after high school during which students can hone their English skills, while receiving credits that can be applied toward a bachelor’s degree when they transfer to a college or university. By the second year, all classes in the junior college are taught in English.
Home ownership is a major factor in building assets. Latino and African-American family net wealth is on average $4,000, compared to $44,000 for their Anglo counterparts. Because 60 percent of that is in homes, one way to begin to build assets and the ability to pass them on to children is home ownership. Nueva Esperanza builds new homes, repairs dilapidated ones, and coaches new owners through the application process with bilingual mortgage counseling and homebuyer workshops, helping 50-75 families each year purchase their first home.
Creating a critical mass of resources in a neighborhood is one of the keys to community renewal. So Nueva Esperanza acquired a six-acre campus that serves as a nerve center for its growing operations, including the academy and junior college, a gymnasium, 12 businesses, and state offices for employment. The group manages 320,000 sq. ft. of commercial real estate. Nueva Esperanza also acquired a 150-acre campground to offer not only swimming, sports, and crafts, but also character education, abstinence training, and academic enrichment.
Through the Faith-Based Initiative, Nueva Esperanza has re-granted $6 million to other Latino ministries to help them create jobs and housing in other cities. With an annual budget of $17 million and a staff of 150, and affiliate offices in Seattle, Los Angeles, Tucson, Orlando, Miami, New York and Boston, Nueva Esperanza is one of the largest Latino faith-based organizations in the country. Drawing on his success in building up the people he serves, Cortes is writing a series of “how to” books: how to buy a house, establish credit, find a job, and become a citizen.
Rev. Cortes is one of the prime movers behind the Hispanic Prayer Breakfast, which has attracted the President of the United States since it began. This event convenes the spiritual leadership of the fastest growing segment of the American population. Faith plays an important role in their lives: 74 percent of Latinos say religion provides a “great deal” or “quite a bit” of guidance for them.
So mobilizing the strengths of the faithful to help with the transition educationally and economically is a significant opportunity. “We need to build institutions in this country as citizens,” says Cortes. “We need to become part of mainstream society, but do it in accordance with our faith.” The Nueva Esperanza approach fuses faith with economic development and builds civic participation to make Latinos assets for the U.S.
Imparting Marketable Skills in Apprenticeships: Resources
Marketable job skills are crucial to equip newcomers to the country as reliable breadwinners for their families. The difference between totally unskilled labor and those with marketable skills is a critical one, often making the difference between being self-sufficient and being a potential liability in need of assistance. New York has been one of the top destinations for refugees and immigrants since the days of Ellis Island. Monsignor Ronald Marino, who is celebrating his 25th year serving them, has founded an innovative approach to imparting entrepreneurial skills through apprenticeships. And he does it all in a self-funding model without any government money.
It all started with a wrong turn on a sweltering day in Brooklyn, when Marino was looking for used furniture for the Catholic Migration Office. He stumbled onto a room filled with Chinese women and children working furiously at sewing machines, behind windows painted to obscure them from visibility. He thought sweatshops were a thing of the past; he was wrong. When he confronted the owner seated in his air-conditioned office, the priest was thrown out.
Marino did some undercover work to see what the realities were, posing as a man seeking to change careers to see how the government-sponsored job programs functioned. They were paid by the number of participants, not the number placed in jobs. So he decided to take an entrepreneurial approach that would turn newcomers to the U.S. into productive participants. With a start-up grant of $50,000 from Italian businessmen who were grateful for the opportunities given their countrymen who had immigrated to the U.S., Marino launched Resources in 1994. Recent immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, China, the former Soviet republics, and other far-flung corners of the earth have entered his training in the years since. Ninety-eight percent of them are employed.
Because language skills are the sine qua non for gainful employment, Marino first connects participants in Resources to English instruction in one of the 30 diocesan programs. Once they master the basics of English, he puts them into training programs to impart professional skills in a combination of classroom instruction and apprenticeships. Professional cleaning, translation services, building maintenance, and computer graphic design are four tracks trainees can pursue as apprentices, learning the trades hands-on. The services they provide as trainees generate sufficient income for the nonprofit to cover the costs of the program and provide a modest stipend. The total revenue is now approaching $2 million annually, making the program totally self-supporting.
Marino is the director of the Catholic Migration Office in Brooklyn (www.catholicmigration.org), which has been serving one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse communities in the nation for 35 years. The first organization of its kind in the U.S., it offers a full orbit of services. Here with the help of a team of lawyers and paralegals, immigrants and refugees can get assistance procuring green cards and labor visas, or in sponsoring a relative or navigating the process of receiving political asylum. Classes in computer education and accent reduction help to mainstream newcomers.
The office also advises those applying for U.S. citizenship and offers them classes in civic instruction. And it steps in to protect those who are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords. The Migration Office also provides pastoral services to the local communities from Croatia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, West Indies, Romania, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Nigeria, Ghana, and Russia.
The theological component of this work is important. Pope John Paul II wrote in the encyclical on Human Work, “The aim of work is not the work itself, but rather it is man.” These words hang on the wall, reminding all there that there is a transcendent purpose to what they do. The dignity of work done well imparts dignity to the person who does it.
Meeting a Market Need: Giving a Hand Up, Not a Handout
“Productivity and opportunity require good labor, people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get at it,” says John Stahl-Wert, a bishop in the Mennonite Church and president of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation. He works closely with Mennonites who are serving people from forty countries, including those from Africa and the Hmong population in Southeast Asia. Stahl-Wert says immigrants bring with them “innovation and the production of new economic potential. We think in terms of businesses that exist and need workers, but not in terms of what doesn’t exist yet. The economy is not a zero sum game. You can produce new value and not only cost.”
Construction companies in Houston banded together ten years ago to recruit young workers to their ranks, as the demand for labor began to outstrip the supply. As president of the Construction Workforce Coalition, Larry Williams went to high schools and put on huge rallies where several thousand kids could try out tools and hear the pitch on opportunities waiting for them. When only a handful followed up, Williams decided another tack was needed. So he went to “boot camps” for young men who had a run-in with the law but were about to be released from detention. For the first few weeks on the job they performed, but few stayed with it as the influence of their old neighborhoods crept back. Meanwhile the demand for workers to put up roofs and drywall remained, and construction companies were begging for labor. So Willliams began to look at the growing immigrant population as a job pool.
Memco was founded in Houston as a staffing company to recruit willing workers and link them to opportunities. Paying hourly wages of $7-10 for unskilled labor and offering Workman’s Compensation makes Memco the exception in an industry where many builders pay cash in envelopes off the books.
Memco has banded together nearly 70 employers, who relay their daily and weekly needs to one office, which dispatches teams of workers to sites all over the greater Houston area. When they finish one project, instead of being unemployed, the workers can be assigned to a new one in the pool.
Because transportation is crucial for getting to far-flung construction sites, Memco provides transportation on nine vans for workers without wheels, making daily runs far beyond the Houston city limits. Workers receive free hardhats, safety goggles, boots and gloves if they need them. At night they can take classes in English or learn how to read a blueprint. After six months, if workers prove themselves, they can move to regular employment with one of the participating companies and concentrate on learning a skill and moving up the pay scale.
Memco is teaming with a new nonprofit in Houston called the Working Connection, which is offering job-readiness classes to equip willing workers to not only land a job, but keep it and advance. Based on the award-winning Cincinnati Works, which serves many African-Americans seeking work, the Houston model tweaked the approach to meet the different demographics locally. The Working Connection provides a link for legal workers—including immigrants, as well as native born leaving homeless shelters, prisons, or welfare—to connect them to jobs that will move them toward economic self-sufficiency. They immerse job-seekers in a week-long curriculum to build job and life skills, then follow up with a mentor for a full year to stabilize the new employees.
Fostering Hispanic-owned businesses is another way to offer a hand up, rather than a handout. Fred Smith, who heads The Gathering and also the Fourth Partner Foundation in Tyler, Texas, funded a demographic study to project developments in his region. He concluded that it would be strategic to strengthen development of Hispanic businesses.
Dawn Franks from the Fourth Partner Foundation now facilitates the Hispanic Business Forum in Tyler. Banks, credit unions and grocery stores in the area have been quick to see the advantages of such an alliance. Smith and Franks say a private sector response to economic development is the best solution and that these Hispanic business owners will be the best positioned to meet the needs of their community. Franks says, “There is economic opportunity and room enough for new businesses to grow and develop.” Her experience indicates that “they are uncomfortable with anything that looks like a handout. They just want the opportunity to work really hard and give their children opportunities they haven’t had.”
Assimilation is the Key to Making Productive Citizens
One of the concerns with the current wave of immigrants is that they will not be assimilated into American culture and be separate stones in a mosaic, rather than compatible ingredients in the melting pot. There is no easy remedy for this potential problem, as the Zeitgeist of our increasingly multicultural society is already depriving our native born of any coherent sense of our common civic order.
The recent report on civic literary (www.americancivicliteracy.org) published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute spells out the consequences of inadequate civic education that has resulted from gutting the curricula at most colleges, leaving our own youngsters almost as ignorant of the American heritage as newcomers to the country. It is impossible to love a country one does not know, as it is reflected in its heroes and its history. Aside from the question of who can reside here legally is a deeper question about newcomers: Will they become Americans by conviction? If so, how?
The process of assimilation takes place in the civic sector, for the most part, in the schools, churches, and communities across America. Civil society is the hearth of the culture, providing the personal interaction that large public institutions cannot. This is where we will make it or break it in taking newcomers from all the nations of the world and turning them into Americans.
Learning English is the first prerequisite to function in America, but that’s just the start. Knowing the heart of America, its stories and its culture, is crucial to becoming a participant, a citizen in the deeper sense. James Wilson, who signed the Constitution, observed “Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.” Learning enough to pass the civics exam for citizenship should be the minimum hurdle, not the only one.
The government has just redesigned the citizenship test to stress concepts of America’s history, rather than rote recitation of dates and names. In a voluntary project in ten cities, applicants for citizenship can opt into the pilot project and answer ten questions from the new list of 144 (www.uscis.gov). “Our goal is to inspire immigrants to learn about the civic values of this nation so that after they take the oath of citizenship, they will participate fully in our great democracy,” says Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Preparation for the test up to now has focused almost exclusively on memorizing facts like how many stripes are on the flag or who wrote the “Star Spangled Banner.” The new test asks the meaning of limited powers of the government, and what the term inalienable rights means. It’s a start toward imparting an understanding of civic literacy that is broader than flash cards. But until there are institutions teaching the newcomers to America about its history and its civic order, they will have a superficial understanding at best. This is an area that is apparently lacking at present. A creative approach to imparting civic literacy could make a crucial difference in assimilating immigrants who are here.
The essence of meaningful participation in American life revolves around several crucial factors: language, education, employment, and family. Schools, churches, and private organizations have historically done the job of imparting strengths to newcomers to the nation, while building up their lives and embedding them in the matrix of relationships that constitute the fabric of civil society. If we can invest in the success of efforts that do this effectively, we can add assets to America. We need creative approaches from strategically minded philanthropists to foster such efforts now to reach this side of a growing, and changing, America.
Sidebar: The Theological Roots of “Welcoming the Stranger”
It is no accident that many of the people who have stepped up to serve immigrants do so because of their faith. Many of the efforts mentioned here, like Resources, Nueva Esperanza, the Sisters of Charity, and the Working Connection, have their origins in religion. Welcoming immigrants and caring for the poor, which are often related, are key tenets of both Hebrew and Christian teaching. There is an important moral and spiritual dimension to “welcoming the stranger” that has been underemphasized in the sometimes shrill debates.
The Israelites’ experience of exile, oppression, and deliverance is crucial to understanding salvation in Judaism. Because they had been aliens, the Israelites were closer to understanding the plight of others who suffered the same fate. They were admonished to be kind to those who came to their country as foreigners, remembering their own experience: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)
Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez from Honduras, who spoke at the University of St. Thomas in Houston in June 2005, explained the common roots of Jewish and Christian teaching on this point. “In honor of God’s deliverance of his people, Israel was enjoined to show justice towards all: ‘For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe. He executes justice for the orphan and the window, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
The teachings of Jesus urge us to care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner among us. At the final judgment, “All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and he will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” (Matthew 25:32-40) Those who do not, he will condemn. As Monsignor Marino puts it, “We are made in the image of Christ. If you serve Christ, you see Him in the person you serve. You discover your own dignity in seeing Him in others.”
The Catholic Church has a rich theological tradition of “welcoming the stranger,” evident in the American response to the great wave of immigration at the end of the 19th century. Cardinal Rodriguez reminds us, “A century ago, the Church responded generously to the needs of immigrants: building parishes and schools, establishing a vast array of charitable institutions, evangelizing newcomers, and being evangelized in turn by immigrants . . . with distinctive traditions of worship and often a deep spirituality of their own.” Because of faith, “the Church embraced these immigrants, supporting them in their striving to build a better life . . . .[I]mmigrants and their children quickly became vital participants in American society, acquiring proficiency in English by the second and third generations, rising in the educational system, and contributing in thousands of ways to the economic growth and social, political, and spiritual life of the country.”
The response to immigrants in the faith community today spans Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations. Some recall their own immigrant roots of a few generations ago and act on that memory. Other congregations find themselves in neighborhoods that have shifted in their demographics, and they are creating new solutions to meet new needs. But there is still anything but a concerted effort among people of faith to “welcome the stranger,” even among those whose families not long ago were strangers themselves.
Barbara J. Elliott is the founder and president of the Center for Renewal in Houston, Texas, and the author of Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities.