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Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Serendipity dissolves boundaries. "Eight more stamps and you get a complimentary cut and wash," said Marites, the hairdresser. Right before my flight to Nairobi last year, I readied myself at a Supercuts in Brooklyn. Shortly into the cut, I learned that Marites was Filipino and her husband Indian. She detailed her trip to the Philippines two years prior. She itemized her trip to India visiting her husband's family. I matched my delight walking three-way street traffic in Bangalore with her experience negotiating with fruit sellers in Kolkata. Before I could finish mentioning my upcoming flight to Nairobi, she cut the buzzer. She exclaimed, "My sister is a nurse who works and lives in Nairobi!" Before I knew it I had all the contact information for her family across an ocean. Only in New York? I walked home in an empire state of mind.

I often imagine my father more than three decades ago, putting on and lacing up his shoes, making his way through the UPENN campus, awkwardly dressed as all Indian fathers and uncles are, solving complex physics and engineering equations that 99.9% of humanity could scarcely imagine. I still get a sense of a man who was enchanted by how openly America embraced him, wanted him. He paid this forward paving the path for hundreds of others to migrate since. Is America no longer that dynamic oasis, a place few now desire? Hardly. But the beacon flickers.

Since 9/11, the proportion of students that come to America has dropped by a quarter, even as study exchanges rose dramatically. Playing culprit is a raft of restrictive policies— dramatically reduced student and work visas, prohibitive citizenship costs, draconian deportation laws, and blanket screening measures. Lines and wait times have lengthened. We've shriveled and closed up, fortressed ourselves in. How are we supposed to share, innovate, collaborate, and understand? The irony is that it's all in the name of security. The fact is that shriveling up is exactly the coarse impulse, the misguided response that undermines security and inflames a belligerent anti-American fringe. To them, America becomes even more distant and imperial. Now is exactly the time we should be increasing the exchange with and visas granted to Saudi Arabia, the broader Middle East, and Central Asia. Students who leave take back and emulsify their American cultural experience. As political theorist Hannah Arendt said, "American culture is deconstructed and re contextualized into the everyday experience of the people. American popular culture is not the monopoly of Americans; it is a medium through which people around the world constantly reorganize their individual and collective identities." Let's lubricate this process. To boot, these students are the very youth that will one day likely be in roles of power and decision to emulate the democratic, social, and legal structures they experienced. The punchline— a beacon attracts, it doesn't repel.

We dehumanize. We grapple with "collateral" in war abroad and "aliens" in peace at home. Similar to the '80s when images of the "welfare queen" riding limos, sipping champagne distorted truths and distanced reality, today, so too does the continuous bombardment of portrayals of Mexicans climbing fences, painting them as felons. We hear of raids and roundups. They hear the knock at the door. Outsiders become threats to fear. In doing so, we paint with a broad brush a wholly inaccurate and incomplete picture. Adding pride to shortsightedness, we vault our feelings to "patriotism," a passion for America and our identity. But, this misdirected zeal cheapens our patriotism. Passion left to its own devices, unsculpted by curiosity, empathy, and inquiry is at its best hollow and at its worst dangerous. And it's about as patriotic as pad thai. Let's remember that in 2010, over half of PhDs in America will be granted to foreigners. Let's be mindful of who our scientists, laborers, farmers, physicians, builders, storeowners, and filmmakers are. It is not a coincidence that the fastest growing, most dynamic economies in America are those with the most immigrants. 2010 will be the first year that minority births will exceed white (non-Latino) births. By 2050, America will be a majority minority country.

Mexico. While it has grown in the shadow of America, the way we treat our neighbor casts a shadow over our posture toward Latin America and foreigners broadly. No, immigration from Mexico does not equal the immigration debate, but it is certainly the most contentious flashpoint today. To say that our treatment of the Hispanic and broader Latino community will shape the next American century is an understatement. Make no mistake, Latinos will be the center of economic dynamism and political progress for as far as the eye can see.

Latino trends and issues are not cordoned off to Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. They are household up to Bangor, Minneapolis, Fargo, and Seattle. Over half of Chicago's public school system, 99 congressional districts, and over 10% of U.S. counties are now majority Latino. An overwhelming portion of the patients in my mother's pediatrics practice in Connecticut are Latino. Yet I still hear of roundups. The massive New Bedford, Massachusetts raid rounding up 300 took place just three years ago. Hundreds, many U.S. citizens themselves, desperately pleaded for missing husbands and sisters, torn families. I hear the chorus of "family values," but should it not be a song for all families?

The complex web of alliances surrounding immigration reform— big business, big agriculture, border states, law enforcement, immigrants, "the heartland"— reinforcing and contradicting one another is enough to make anyone politically seasick. Worse, the us versus them line hardens. I'd rather put all this aside and draw edges to evolve and steer the approach – 1) a renovated moral stance, 2) demographic and economic foresight, and 3) partnership with Mexico. Border security, while important, is just one piece of an ensemble. We face a high wire balancing act— putting 12 million current illegal immigrants on a path to naturalization, safeguarding civil rights, and fostering employment growth in an economy shifting from debt and consumption to investment and exports. There is no silver bullet, only a slate of needed changes, including reform and expansion of H-1B and H-2B visa policies, as well as improvements to oversight of employer hiring practices, domestic and foreign recruiting programs, guest worker programs, E-Verify, green card paths, border control, costs of citizenship, border control, and internal enforcement. Rather than jerk our knees, we can transcend.

This will require some moral imagination, for us to humanize rather than demonize, to feel how calloused hands can get. Let's look ahead. Our population is graying and over the next 50 years will siphon healthcare and pension funds while consuming less. As innovation guru C.K. Prahalad would emphasize, let's look 50 to 100 years in the future and fold it into today. America is projected to gain 100 million more people by 2050, many of whom will be immigrants, overwhelmingly Latino. The Latino population will be keeping us young and vibrant; it will be the workforce energizing our economy. Lastly, when we think of Mexico, we can't just think of a place we post up fences against. It is a partner to engage and trade with. Not only is it in our interest to ensure Mexican immigrants can be put on the path to middle class success and education, but it behooves us to assist Mexico in brightening its own employment opportunities and diversifying its economy. Latin America is often a footnote in our global narrative. We think of the love scene and car chase as happening in East and South Asia. But, to forget is our loss. Mexico will be a top ten economy in size within 50 years (currently fifteenth); the image of a cartel laiden nation rife with instability distorts reality as Mexico's human development index is actually on par with that of the U.S. and Europe. Brazil is energy independent. Chile offers enviable living standards. Panama is an arbiter of world trade. We could keep going. In sum, it's time we reimagine ourselves and the face of our middle class, our cities, and our suburbs.

On the yardstick, America is far and away more dynamic, open, and immigrant friendly than Europe and Japan. But, I still find an America carrying a primitive distance within her, nursing misguided fears and a misshapen immigrant story. From Mexico to Brazil, Nigeria to Somalia, Syria to Pakistan, the boundaries are in our minds. Last year in Chicago, I met an inspiring young woman, Elisabeth Freeman, who migrated from Zimbabwe at the height of its decay, and eventually founded a California-based NGO, Legacy Direct, dedicated to healthcare and biotechnology access in Africa. On the way back to my hotel, I met a Filipino cab driver whose daughter was accepted into University of Illinois Urbana Champaign that day. He was so proud he couldn't stop talking about seeing her after his night shift. Today, he still remains a nameless figure that encourages my most human impulses.