Assimilating the New American Immigrant
Barbara J. Elliott’s “Assimilating the New American Immigrant” (Philanthropy, November/December 2006) was an excellent piece which manages to weave together the different strands of assimilation work into a coherent whole. This article isn’t one-sided or shallow. It’s a piece I can readily hand to people who are interested in the opportunity and challenge of assimilation. Granted, it is not nor does it pretend to be comprehensive, but Barbara has identified the key components of the issue and given all of us practical illustrations of individuals and organizations doing good work.
From our perspective of business creation and ownership, the biggest obstacle has been a fairly strong mindset of the social service, education, religious and business community that Hispanics are primarily clients to be served by agencies, churches, caring citizens and political groups. Even armed with numbers that show the accelerating ownership of businesses by Hispanics, there is a built-in bias toward more job creation, more social services, better educational opportunities and the standard “empowerment” speeches rather than the strengthening of Hispanic-owned businesses whose owners are interested in the very same things our active Chamber of Commerce members value—customers and profit.
The most satisfying part of this work has been facilitating the creation of a Hispanic Business Alliance whose mission is to create and strengthen Hispanic-owned businesses in our community. I think we are making progress, but moving the discussion away from minority, social, educational and justice language within the business community itself has been a learning experience for all of us. We are not denying these elements need to be a part of the mix, but they have too often colored our assumptions about the basic interest in economic vitality and responsibility.
Finally, I’d like to clarify one point in this superb article. The Fourth Partner Foundation does not facilitate the Hispanic Business Forum. That organization is completely separate and stands on its own. We participated in the creation of the Hispanic Business Alliance, and that alliance is now a functioning part of the Tyler Chamber of Commerce.
Fourth Partner Foundation
Barbara Elliott’s excellent article about immigration contains a reference to biblical understanding. I’d like to take her analysis one step further.
The prophets of ancient Israel frequently said, “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” Immigrants then had the same opportunity as the local poor to take on hard tasks, such as picking up grain from the corners of fields and picking fruit from high branches. In addition, Israelites were to give part of their tithes to “the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.”
Barbara’s article stressed the importance of assimilation, and so does the Bible. Ruth, the heroine of the greatest biblical immigration story, was a Moabite woman, so three times her mother-in-law, Naomi, told her not to journey to Israel. But when Ruth said, “Your people will be my people, and your God my God”—that’s assimilation—Naomi assented. Ruth became the ancestor of Israelite kings and Jesus.
Two particular policy measures seem consistent with a biblical way of thinking. Israelites were repeatedly told, “Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns.” Illegal aliens today are easy to take advantage of because they cannot contact their local sheriff when they are cheated. That’s an argument for a guest-worker program, with temporary visas, so that those determined to come anyway gain legal protection and the right to work at jobs that would otherwise go unfilled.
Secondly, Ruth received help from a relative, Boaz. Immigrants to America have traditionally had to have a sponsor who would teach them the ways of the new country and guarantee that they would not need to go on welfare. From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, sponsorship agreements were often wishes rather than legally binding obligations; now some are being taken seriously again, and that is as it should be. Individuals but also charities should take on the role of sponsorship.
Senior Fellow, Acton Institute and Professor, University of Texas at Austin