An immigrant's request: Keep these things in mind when debating immigration reform

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The author, with her brother, Quaime Lee and her mother, Ruth Lee, in 1987, about two years after moving to Boston from Montserrat. (Family photo.)


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My story of being a first-generation immigrant has always drawn bipartisan admiration. Most Americans welcome immigrants who come to this country the right way and succeed. Unfortunately, that perspective has been lost amid a growing nationalist wave and the backlash against it.

I am often a bridge between two worlds: family and friends, who share similar racial or immigrant experiences, but not political views; and colleagues with whom I share similar views of limited government and greater personal and economic freedom as the paths to prosperity, but who come from different backgrounds. I try to provide both sides a different perspective to correct misinformation and erase stereotypes.

This week the Senate is set to start an unprecedented debate on immigration. This effort is not just overdue, but necessary; we need a viable long-term solution to immigration issues.

Lawmakers can also coalesce around areas of bipartisan agreement. Upholding the law and securing our borders are critical goals. Some 79 percent of Americans say we need secure borders. Maintaining or increasing legal migration, which benefits our economy and our society, is also a worthy aim. Nearly two of three Americans agree. These goals are not in conflict, but too often they are played against each other.

The debate may get contentious, but we can agree on a couple of basic truths: It is wrong to accuse those who want to calibrate immigration levels as operating out of malice, hate, or bigotry and it is wrong to designate any immigrant group as more or less worthy to come to America than any other.

Recently, we’ve seen a resurgence of divisive rhetoric about immigrants, particularly from black countries. As a first-generation Caribbean immigrant who is married to a first-generation African immigrant, let me correct several misperceptions.

Not all immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean flee war-torn or economically-devastated nations. Less than a third of African immigrants and just 5 percent of Caribbean immigrants are refugees and asylees. Most self-select to pursue opportunity and join family, not escape misery. Coming to America is a dream come true for many, but that doesn’t relieve the pain of leaving behind spouses, children, friends, networks of support, property, and cultural familiarity.

My family lived a comfortable middle-class life on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. However, looking ahead to the future, my high-school-educated parents wanted to give my brother and me better educational and professional opportunities than they had. They sold our home, cars and possessions, and we arrived in America with five suitcases of clothes to start afresh in a poor Boston neighborhood.

The adjustment from driving our own cars to riding public buses, downsizing from a spacious two-story house overlooking the ocean to a two-bedroom attic apartment with one window, and leaving almost everyone we knew behind was tough. However, looking at our success my parents maintain to this day that the sacrifice was worth it.

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Most blacks immigrants are educated and industrious. Foreign-born blacks are more likely to have bachelor’s degrees than U.S.-born blacks. We are well represented at the nation’s best colleges — making up 41 percent of the black population of Ivy League schools. Furthermore, there’s a higher percentage of African immigrants with a bachelor’s degree or higher than the U.S. population with bachelor’s degrees in general.

And we work hard. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of black immigrants are in the labor force compared with 67 percent of all immigrants and 64 percent of native-born Americans. Our households earn $10,000 more than U.S.-born blacks.

The challenge for educated black immigrants is that they struggle to obtain jobs that match their qualifications. Many employers don’t accept credentials and experience from faraway lands. Hence, they are limited to minimum-wage jobs.

For example, my spouse moved to the United States Nigeria with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and several years of sales and distribution experience but searched for work to no avail.  It was Walmart that finally gave him a chance to work as a cashier. Because of his work ethic and ambition, he rose quickly to manage more than 50 employees in two years and, now, he’s a sales manager for a Fortune 200 company.

Black immigrants embrace cultural assimilation. Speaking English is a part of success in the workplace and society and nearly two in three immigrants overall (65 percent) say the government should expect non-English speakers to learn the language.

Foreign-born blacks are at an advantage as they tend to come from English-speaking countries. Those who cannot speak English come up with creative ways — beyond just ESL classes — to learn to speak better English such as those who drive for ride-sharing apps to improve their English fluency.

Most people who come to this country have grit, determination and possess a strong work ethic. Whether they have a high school diploma or graduate degrees, they bring talent, knowledge, and drive that strengthens the workforce, impacts culture, and contributes to the nation’s economic success.

When I hear the personal experiences of people who come to this country hoping to achieve their dreams, I am reminded of my own parents who traded the familiarity our home country for the uncertainty of a better future for their children. We cannot lose that.

Patrice Onwuka is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington.

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