Synopsis: There is a lot of talk by politicians and others about immigration policy in the United States. Many Americans are all for open immigration for those fleeing poverty and oppression. Others think that we need to stem the tide of refugees and undocumented immigrants to our shores. Our guests talk about what immigrants to this country offer to all of us and our economy, and how we should create a plan to allow them to become full members of the community and receive the education and training they need to succeed in their adopted home.
Host: Gary Price. Guests: Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation, author of America Needs Talent; Deepa Iyer, Sr. Fellow, Center for Social Inclusion, author of We Too Sing America.
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The Importance of Immigrants to the U.S.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gary Price: That quote from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet New Colossus, which is immortalized on the Statue of Liberty, has offered hope to millions of people from around the world who sought refuge from poverty and oppression. Unless you are a Native American, your ancestors came to these shores as immigrants in centuries past looking for a better life, making up the melting pot that is America. These days, though, many citizens and politicians think it’s time to close that golden door a bit. Immigration reform is a big issue in Washington and among the presidential hopefuls who are constantly questioned about it on the stump. Our guests discuss the problems immigrants and the country face, the benefits of a robust immigration policy and they offer some solutions to the disputes many have over the issue. Jamie Merisotis is CEO of Lumina Foundation and the author of the book, America Needs Talent: Attracting, educating & deploying the 21st-century workforce. He says that we need new immigrants if we want to excel economically. And, no, they’re not going to take away Americans’ jobs…
Jamie Merisotis: I think the real truth is that a lot of the immigrants in this country today, are taking very low-end jobs when what most Americans want is the jobs that are good jobs, that’ll help them be a part of the middle class and actually earn a living wage. And for the most part, the immigrants that I think that we are concerned about are not the people who are taking those jobs.
Price: Merisotis isn’t saying that we need to allow immigrants in just to do menial jobs. He says that’s what many do…at first…
Merisotis: I think the issue is that we’ve actually got to create opportunities for the people who do come to the United States. It’s a combination of things. It’s using our immigration policies to actually recruit people to do that kind of work and then giving them the kind of educational opportunities to continue to advance. There’s going to be a pipeline of immigrants to the United States forever, as there should be because it’s part of what’s made us a great country. But part of the success of immigrants, and my family is a good example of that, you come into this country, you start at the low end and through education and work and training, you can actually make your way to the middle class and be successful. That’s part of the American Dream, that’s part of our success story. So even if you come in at the low end and do low-wage jobs, we don’t want to keep you there. We actually want to give you the talent that you need to be successful in work and life.
Price: He says we should be talking about talent. How do we provide unskilled immigrants a leg up the success ladder? And how do we accommodate them and their families with housing and other resources?
Merisotis: The key element in all of this is collaboration. Collaboration particularly driven by the private sector. We’ve seen some really good examples of some cities that have actually turned the corner by actually developing these collaborative partnerships where business or civic leaders are at the middle, non-profit organizations, community-based organizations, educational institutions. But the driving element of all of that is: how do we produce a higher level of talent through our immigration system, through our policies of actually integrating the immigrants through our education systems, to finding ways to actually create the housing, the economic opportunity, etc., for people that are there as well as people who come to those cities?
Price: In his book, Merisotis profiles one of those cities that has turned the corner: Grand Rapids, Michigan…
Merisotis: It’s a fairly conservative Midwestern city, not the kind of place like, say, Austin or Denver where people are drawn because of natural resources or other things. But it’s become a place of success, an old, manufacturing economy that’s turned the corner, because they’ve developed this highly collaborative model where people really work hard together. And, by the way, they’re willing to make mistakes, they’re willing to recognize that things didn’t go well but they stick together in a very unified way saying, “We can do better. We can make this more successful.” And I love those kinds of models. There’s other cities that are trying to do similar things, like Louisville, Kentucky, Santa Ana, California. These are the kinds of places that we should be looking to for inspiration, in terms of their ability to actually attract, educate and deploy the talent that we need.
Price: To make sure that immigrants who are semi-skilled or unskilled get the education and training they need we have to beef up our post-high school education systems…
Merisotis: The majority of jobs, and particularly the good jobs, the ones that pay the median wage, the ones that have things like healthcare and retirement, they require a post-secondary education. But the system is not really suited to serve those large numbers of students. It doesn’t have the capacity to serve them, it’s unaffordable – I think we can all agree on that point – and frankly, we’re not sure what we’re getting out of the system that a lot of employers are saying, “Well, you know we want people with talent, but it’s not clear what we’re getting. We often use a college degree as a prerequisite, but then we’re not exactly sure what we get, and we have to do additional training and education.”
Price: Immigrants come here for many different reasons, and want the opportunity to contribute to American society and the economy; it’s just that some aren’t given a chance to feel welcome in the community or in the workplace. Deepa Iyer says that immigrants from some countries are looked upon with suspicion and sometimes anger. This can lead to segregation and even threats on their lives and safety. Iyer is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion and author of the book, We Too Sing America…
Deepa Iyer: Some of the challenges that Muslim, Arab, South Asian and Sikh immigrants have, in particular, experienced especially over the past 14 years since 9-11, have to do with this narrative of “other” in these communities that see them as threats to our national security, seeing them as different, seeing them as foreigners. So part of what my book calls for is that it’s a process that all of us need to be engaged in, so immigrants need to, of course, be engaged in making sure that they are able to fully participate in American society. And those of us living here need to be able to make sure that they can do so without facing barriers and challenges.
Price: Iyer says that new immigrants naturally seek out neighborhoods where there are others like them so they feel comfortable in their new country. However, we should not look at Arab, South Asian, Muslim or Sikh immigrants as “different” and keep them apart. We should, instead, be in conversation with them and concentrate on our shared experiences and goals. To do this, she says that immigrants of all races, ethnicities and religions should be encouraged to participate fully in the community…
Iyer: Make sure that people aren’t set apart. But how can we engage people generally, whether it’s in the political system, whether it’s in terms of getting involved in civic associations, school boards, and the like. How do we make sure that people feel like they can have that safety net, but also feel empowered to engage? And part of what my book talks about is that immigrants want to do that, but oftentimes they’re facing tremendous barriers and challenges in order to be able to connect with those around them, as well.
Price: Americans often resort to stereotyping the immigrants that Iyer writes about because of their nationality, religion or apparel. If they go to a mosque instead of a church or synagogue, wear a hajib or a turban or a sari she says they can be pigeon-holed by those who don’t want to accept them as full citizens in the community…
Iyer: One example that your listeners might know about is about the student in Texas who brought in a homemade clock which was immediately perceived to be a bomb because he has a Muslim name, he’s a Black Muslim and he was criminalized by school administrators. So that sort of environment is what these communities are living in, and what I argue in the book is that we can do better, that we don’t need to paint them with this broad brush, and that we can actually make sure that we’re making better decisions, putting in place better policies that don’t paint them all in the same way.
Price: Iyer says that another stereotype is that people who come in from India, Pakistan or the Middle East are all prodigies – that they are all computer experts or scientists. She says that many are, but those coming now are working class and need access to education and training without the social barriers they often face…
Iyer: A lot of South Asians, Sikhs and Muslims students face a tremendous amount of bullying in the classroom. Not to feel that they might be, for example, as the student I mentioned earlier in Texas, be profiled because of their last name, or the faith that they believe in. So we need to set up safer classrooms that are more welcoming, that don’t criminalize students, that don’t profile them. And we also need to make sure that we’re investing in the neighborhoods where these students might live to make sure that they don’t have sub-par educational access as compared to other people.
Price: One barrier is paying for the education and training, not to mention housing and other resources. Merisotis says that in addition to having the leadership to pass immigration legislation on Capitol Hill, the private sector can step up and help create the workforce for the 21st century…
Merisotis: Private capital markets today represent $200-trillion in total investible assets. So if you do some quick math here and you say, “What if we took 1/100th of one percent of what’s in the private capital markets today and we applied it to talent?” what you’re talking about is $200-billion in money that would be available to actually support the kind of change I’m talking about. What do the private capital markets want out of this? They want return. Well, how do we generate the kind of return that we need? And my view is that the private capital markets have an opportunity to literally do well and do good by investing in this change. They’ll make some money, if they’re successful, but they’ll also be investing in social change and there’s a growing number of companies that believe as strongly in the social value of what they’re doing as the economic value. And, you know, thinking about ways in which we can draw that capital, maybe use some new approaches. There’s something that the majority of states have now called B Corporations which are low-profit corporations that can be created to actually both do well and do good, make money but also achieve social goals. We should be investing more in those kinds of changes. That’s the kind of leadership that I think combined with smarter public policy and community-driven change in places like cities, that I think are going to make us successful economically and socially.
Price: You can read all about Jamie Merisotis’s plan for immigration, social change and how it can benefit our society and the economy in his book, America Needs Talent, available now. You can also log onto his website at LuminaFoundation.org. For insight into the barriers that South Asian, Sikh, Muslim and Arab immigrants face and how to overcome them, pick up Deepa Iyer’s book, We Too Sing America and visit her site at DeepaIyer.com. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.