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Column: Immigration and the Frayed Social Fabric (4 of 5)

  • Yang Chen and a co-worker at his body shop in Silver Spring, Md. Originally from China, he says he likes America because “it is fair.” -- Earl Dotter photograph

  • Fourth of a five-part series.



For the Valley News
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Yang Chen, owner of Quality Auto Body in Silver Spring, Md., embodies the American Dream. He came to America from China in 1988. His employees are either Chinese, or from Central America. He told me in his cluttered office, “I had a hard time getting a job, worked at a restaurant, until I discovered the help wanted classifieds in The Washington Post. When I started my own body shop, I worked until 11 or 12 at night. I like America because it is fair. Nobody asks for money under the table. I brought my mother here. My three kids went to the University of Maryland to study engineering.”

 Ironically, many of today’s immigrants like Chen appear more American in values than do Americans. The foreign-born are more confident that hard work gets you ahead. They are more sure (70 percent to 47 percent) that their children will prosper. According to various reports, more of them speak English now, in part because more have learned some English before arrival. Recent immigrants more closely match native-born persons in educational attainment than those who came when immigration spiked in the 1980s.

 Many Americans today seem to harbor darker thoughts about immigration. Counter to Emma Lazarus’ famous welcome, they’d rather not lift a lamp for those striving toward our golden door. The 2016 presidential contest may have given people psychological permission to express existing but politically incorrect observations: That foreigners arrive and thrive due not to merit but to civil rights lawyers and uncontrolled immigration. That recent immigrants are less “like us.”

 I have read it takes two, even three generations for an immigrant group to integrate, or feel free, willing and able to learn, work, reside and partner just as much as people with deeper roots. Then I talked with a half dozen so-called “1 and 1/2 generation” children of Cambodian refugees who had settled in Lowell, Mass. Now in their 30s, they arrived at a very young age with their parents. By the time they reached high school, they were on a path to complete integration.

 Among the many immigrants helping others to integrate is Claude Rwaganje, who coaches people on managing household finances in Portland, Maine. He meets every year with fellow Banyamulenges, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “There are 5,000 of us in America,” he told me. “At our annual national meetings we talk about how to get a job and work your way up, how to be a success without losing your culture, avoiding mistakes such as touching a co-worker.”

 Despite these successes, half of Americans perceive immigrants as a threat to U.S. traditions and values. Since 2004, the Pew Research Center has asked whether respondents believe that a “growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society, or threatens traditional American customs and values.” In 2013, 43 percent said that newcomers threaten traditional American values and customs. Just three years later, 49 percent of the general public said that; and 57 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

 Maybe it’s the comfort of the familiar. Back in 2008, 54 percent of Americans said they prefer to live in a community with fewer immigrants. Older, conservative nonurban people, away from the West Coast and white, tended to prefer fewer immigrants by about 65 percent to 20 percent.

 For me as a young boy in the 1950s, living in suburbs, immigrants were an exotic species. Had someone referred to a nearby neighborhood as “Polish Town,” as did the citizens of Grover’s Corners, N.H., in Northern Stage’s 2016 heartfelt production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, I’m sure it would have been unremarkable.

 For the first 80 years of the 20th century, immigrants settled along the coasts and the Mexican border. Since then, the immigrant population has risen from under 15 million to over 42 million. The immigrant share of adults has more than quadrupled in 232 U.S. counties. Sixty-two million people speak a language other than English at home in the U.S. today.

 One of America’s most respected social scientists, Robert Putnam, at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has studied the social impact of ethnic diversity. The results shocked him so much that he withheld reporting them for years. Fighting his personal pro-immigrant leanings, he concluded, “immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital.” He describes social capital as a collective capacity to spark civic participation and trust, keys to building democracy. In his 2006 lecture, “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam warned, “The more ethnically diverse a residential context is, the less we trust …” He said the more racially diverse a community, the less trust exists among neighbors. Even trust within groups is lower in more diverse settings.

 If one were to name a poorly integrated immigrant group, it would not be Muslims, as Trump supporters might believe. It would be Mexicans, the people who harvest our produce, cut our grass, make up our hotel beds. Half of Mexicans in the United States are unauthorized, a number greater than the population of Massachusetts. They deal with risk of deportation and limited job options.

 As they migrated into nontraditional regions after the 1980s they carried isolation on their backs.

Between 2000 and 2010, Latinos accounted for 58 percent of all non-metropolitan population growth in the United States, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

 Hispanic voting rates in the U.S. actually decline from first to second to third generations. Only about 35 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants take citizenship, far less than most other nationalities.

First-generation Mexicans have the lowest average educational attainment of all immigrant groups. The second generation’s education level is higher, but still with a high rate of non-high-school completion. Their lagging education largely explains their deficit in wages, which continues into the third generation. (First-generation people from India, by contrast, earn more than native-born Americans.)

 Business executives, teachers and case workers told me they can break down barriers to integration. In the cities with hundreds or thousands of recent immigrants in northern New England, nonprofits and public schools teach English and coach life skills. (There is a chronic shortage of English language instructors.) In the Upper Valley, Lebanon High School’s Adult Learner Services provides English language instruction. Welcoming All Nationalities Network of the Upper Valley (WANN) keeps track of services that immigrants may need.

 Integrating immigrants is a long game. Many Americans appear to have become fed up with it. Immigration may not be tearing the country apart, but it is fraying the social fabric.

Peter Rousmaniere is a writer in Woodstock. His email address is pfr@rousmaniere.com. He blogs about immigration issues at www.workingimmigrants.com.