Noe arrived in the United States after a treacherous two-month journey to flee El Salvador. He hiked through the jungle, rode on top of trains, slept on the streets of Mexico City, and trekked through the desert. Eventually he made it to San Francisco.
When Noe enrolled in high school, he discovered a passion—and a valuable talent—for chemistry and calculus. I met Noe at College Track, an organization that supports underserved youth through high school and college, where I’m a counselor and mentor. Noe graduated with a 4.2 GPA and was accepted to UC Berkeley. He graduated from there a year ago with a degree in architecture and economic policy, having benefited from California’s commitment to provide undocumented students with access to financial aid. But instead of beginning his career as an architect, he is working as an apartment manager in exchange for rent—because his undocumented status bars him from putting that world-class education to work for his community.
In 2012, President Obama opened a temporary lane that has given some undocumented students a way around such roadblocks. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program granted a temporary reprieve from deportation and the opportunity to work to children who came to the US before the age of 16 and before June 15, 2007. But Noe had the bad luck of arriving just after his 16th birthday.
More than 170 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson called America “the country of the future.” In contrast to an aging Europe, Emerson saw here “a heterogeneous population crowding on all ships from all corners of the world to the great gates of North America … and quickly contributing their private thought to the public opinion, their toll to the treasury, and their vote to the election.” Emerson understood the power of social refreshment that immigration fuels—the invigorating effect of a regular infusion of new intellectual capital, ambition, and determination. The positive consequences of immigration have been a significant factor in the extraordinary growth of American industry.
In my corner of the world, Silicon Valley, the immigration discussion has centered mostly on those who come to America to study at universities and who are skilled in technology or the sciences—only to be forced out before they can apply their skills in the US workforce. Barring the door to these people is wrong and socially self-defeating. But even in Silicon Valley, calls for immigration reform shouldn’t just be a matter of keeping high-skilled technologists and scientists in the country. A much larger group of immigrants—the struggling and maligned 11 million, more than two-thirds of whom have lived here for more than 10 years—remain trapped in an agonizing state of limbo. The result is that some of our nation’s most industrious individuals are barred from employment in the formal economy. And their talents, creative energies, and ideas are often trapped with them. These are the people who, in this ugly and alarming political season, have been demonized when they should be welcomed.
Individual success in America always heavily depends upon the qualities people bring to their endeavors. But many of those personal qualities are also immigrant qualities—the resourcefulness, the patience, the craving for work and opportunity, the resilience, the self-reliance. First-generation immigrants are significantly more likely than the general population to become entrepreneurs, according to data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.
As Eric Weiner recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, the process of being uprooted from one’s home can inspire a unique brand of creativity that allows immigrants to “see the world at an angle” and recognize possibilities others overlook. The immigrant, the outsider, the newcomer: They see things we do not. And they act on what they see. The American melting pot, with its new eyes and new imaginations, is an incubator for innovation.
I’ve seen this in so many students who have come through College Track. Take Darwin and Mayra: Darwin fled El Salvador in 2007 with his brother and the clothes on his back. Like Noe, Darwin was a high-performing student. Luckily Darwin was eligible for DACA. After overcoming incredible odds—including near-blindness due to congenital cataracts—Darwin is now studying at the University of San Francisco and volunteers as an adviser and mentor for transitional and undocumented youth. He’s working on a degree in international law. Mayra was born in Mexico and became the first in her family to go to college. She earned 11 different scholarships to help fund her tuition and graduated from UC Santa Cruz. She was eligible for DACA and went on to earn a master’s in public health. Today she works at San Mateo County Family Health Services and gives classes on health, nutrition, and gardening.
But for every Darwin or Mayra, there are countless Noes left behind. Our policies for immigration are outdated and broken. Immigrants face more obstacles than opportunities, and the waste of human potential is profound. In an era of global competition, America cannot afford to squander the millions of people who want to work and who can help us craft a better future—whether they are destined to become a farmworker, a teacher, or the next Andy Grove.
What is most maddening about this situation is also what is most hopeful: Granting legal status to undocumented immigrants would unleash massive potential, add an estimated 150,000 new jobs annually, and add $1 trillion to America’s GDP. Rarely in our complex world does such a clean and comprehensive policy solution exist. And a supermajority of Americans actually supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants like Noe, Darwin, and Mayra. According to a recent Gallup poll, 84 percent of all adults take this view, including 76 percent of Republicans.
The trouble is that exclusionary and even xenophobic views are overrepresented right now in our political discourse. And we cannot allow the views of that minority to drive policy. When we start dividing people into the ones we accept and the ones we reject—the ones we embrace and the ones we demonize—we jeopardize the social compact at the very heart of the American experiment.
More than ever, we need the contributions of every American—and every American immigrant—to power our next era of growth. But the economic argument for inclusion is not the most fundamental one. Immigrants have not only made our society wealthier and more productive but also more decent. They have enhanced our national character and made us more ethical people. For America, this is our identity crisis: How a society treats immigrants is a great test of its decency, and we are failing. Immigrants, with their hopes and energies, should be seen not as threats but as blessings.
“In every age of the world,” Emerson wrote, “there has been a leading nation, one of a more generous sentiment, whose eminent citizens were willing to stand for the interests of general justice and humanity, at the risk of being called, by the men of the moment, chimerical and fantastic. Which should be that nation but these States?” And “who,” he asked, “should lead the leaders, but the Young American?” Whenever I meet with Noe, I see a Young American.
This article appears in the November 2016 issue. Subscribe now.
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