Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gateway to Immigrant Assimilation Lies Beyond Education

In light of the revelation that the suspected Boston Marathon bombers are Chechen-born immigrants to the United States, immigration reform is being evaluated as an even more critical issue than it was before. Prior to the bombings, much of the discussion surrounding immigration had to do with mechanisms of law for things like entry or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But as we continue to examine and scrutinize Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s feelings of being an outsider coupled with his younger brother Dzhokhar's seemingly typical teenage life, a new, non-legal question about immigration is becoming central: how successfully do immigrants assimilate* into the fabric of American society?

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Immigrant Kids, Adrift,” Marcelo M. and Carola Suárez-Orozco identify non-legal factors that affect the happiness, wellbeing and stability of young immigrants and assess how they help with assimilation. The op-ed cites a large-scale 1997 study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools in Boston/Cambridge, Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay Area. The authors state that in those 20 schools, there was “no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants.” According to the authors, such environments contribute to declines in academic performance in college and lead to other consequences such as gang membership as they create feelings of alienation and prevent assimilation. The authors note that the Tsarnaev brothers fit the profile of those studied and conclude the article by urging educators and policy makers to assimilate students into the fabric of society through “academic, psychological and other supports.”

The Suárez-Orozcos are correct in urging educators and policy makers to pay greater attention to the needs of young immigrants, but they stop short of addressing another crucial element that affects, perhaps even prevents, assimilation. “Most Americans think we are lazy, gangsters, drug addicts, that only come to take their jobs away,” notes a 14-year-old immigrant boy in the Bay Area who is quoted in the op-ed. Though this is the only mention of broader American attitudes towards immigration in the article, it is the most significant issue raised and glossed over by the authors.

Educational policy and outreach alone cannot be successful in creating a better sense of belonging among young immigrants when the country’s attitudes about immigration remain hostile and laced with racial profiling and stereotypes. Yes, educators can and should work harder to give immigrants more attention and respect, thereby directly and indirectly urging their native born students to do the same. However, students do not learn every life lesson in the classroom and often do not act according to instruction.

My personal experience as an immigrant is illustrative. Fleeing persecution, my family came to the United States when I was five-years-old. I spent my entire life in the American school system, in private Jewish day school. In middle and high school, I was constantly harassed for my Russian heritage, despite sharing a common religious background with my classmates, speaking perfect English with no accent, and being a naturalized United States citizen. I was often called a “communist spy” and told to go back to Russia. “Dirty Russian” was another common insult hurled my way. The classmates who directed these comments at me were native-born Americans, but many of their parents were adult immigrants from Latin-American countries.

These incidents occurred several times a week for years, despite a supportive team of teachers and administrators who were aware of the situation and actively worked to stop and prevent it. They also occurred against the backdrop of Jewish teachings urging my classmates and me to recognize our unity as a people and have respect for every Jew. This suggests that the students who teased me received instruction about their attitudes towards immigrants from somewhere other than the classroom. I was strong enough to get past the constant taunting and hold onto my sense of being American, though it was often not easy. I wonder how many young immigrants like me may not be able to cope as well, especially if the hostility they’re treated to is far more intense than what I went through.

I do not mean to generalize my particular experience to every situation, but I believe it is informative. The student-body in my school was composed of white Jews, and yet it had varied cultural backgrounds and socio-economic statuses. These backgrounds informed or, in the case of students with immigrant parents, failed to inform my classmates’ approach to my immigrant status. Now consider a divided student body like the kind described by the Suárez-Orozcos. It cannot be entirely controlled by educators or policy makers. District lines can be redrawn, but there will always be students of different cultures, religions, socio-economic class, etc. in our public schools. Teachers can teach about equality and unity, but students leave the classroom as members of a larger world that tells them immigrants are bad for America.

Before we can write policies that encourage assimilation, we must rewrite the rhetoric with which immigration is discussed. The legacy of strong anti-immigrant rhetoric in America dates back to the early 19th century, if not further still, and remains essentially unchanged in every generation. Only its target varies. At some point America didn’t want the Poles, then the Jews, now the Mexicans, and most recently the Chechens. I cannot say whether “most Americans” think of immigrants as lazy criminals as the 14-year-old quoted in the op-ed notes, but when immigrants, legal and illegal alike, are endlessly described as a drain on resources taking away from American prosperity, it’s not a stretch to imagine people concluding that immigrants are no good for “us.”

*Note: I personally do not like the word 'assimilation,' as it connotes erasure of immigrants' culture in favor of its American counterpart, but 'assimilation' is the term being used by the news media. For the purposes of this article, I equate 'assimilation' with 'acclamation,' thereby defining the term as a mechanism for immigrants to build a sense of American national identify that coexists with their ethnic cultural background.

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