We sang the star-spangled banner, sitting half out of the hot tub with half-eaten burgers just out of reach. The alien wore an itsy-bitsy American-flag bikini, probably to camouflage her sinister intentions to pilfer resources and drag us to her leader. There may as well have been fireworks, a 1990s Will Smith, and creepy foreshadowing music.
Well… not quite.
After living in the U.S. for most of her life as a legal alien, one of my best friends is becoming an American citizen. We used to wave our arms in false alarm and joke about her status: “Ahhhh!! It’s an alien!!” We were amused (and a little confused) that Chloe and her family would be considered ‘aliens’ in the U.S.
Chloe is finishing her third year of veterinary school at UC Davis. (Translation: she’s a baller.) Her parents emigrated from England almost 15 years ago and they’ve been raising their three children in Saratoga, CA, ever since. Her brother writes music for computer games. Her mom re-earned her nursing degree so she could do hospice care in the U.S. Her dad is a highly respected business development specialist in the computer hardware industry, and he’s known around the office as a great guy to work for and a kick-ass dart player. Her family pays taxes, volunteers in the local school districts, and works their collective butts off to be the best they can be at whatever they choose to do. Sounds pretty American to me.
What does it say about American immigration policy when we categorize people as aliens? Perhaps it started as a politically neutral way to classify outsiders, but I doubt it. Regardless, calling immigrants ‘aliens’ implies they are so foreign, so dramatically strange that they’re difference warrants the distinction of another class. It implies that, fundamentally, immigrants are inhuman and can never be truly integrated. (True to form, there’s a great South Park episode poking fun at this implication.)
Based on my haphazard exposure to different facets of the issue, I only know a few things about immigration law: it is incredibly complex, redundant, incomprehensive, and often driven by international emergencies and short-term U.S. security interests.
Our national stories about immigration represent the best and worst aspects of the American identity. Pilgrims : Native Americans :: Statue of Liberty : Child factory labor and Chinese railroad workers :: The Refugee Act of 1980 : the reality of political asylum for Salvadorans and Guatemalans.
And finally, there’s the current state of affairs. Undocumented immigrants support every aspect of life in California, and the host of human rights issues involved in illegal immigration brings it to the forefront of U.S. policy discussions. Perhaps because of this focus, I hadn’t recognized immigration policy as personal to me, as an issue I could authentically take on even if I supported its advocates emphatically. When I saw this infographic by Engine Advocacy, called “Halt the Brain Drain,” I felt like I’d stepped on a rake. How had I not felt the impact of immigration policy in my personal life? Truth be told, I’d taken for granted the fact that my friends and their families who had legally immigrated were allowed to be here.
Growing up in Silicon Valley, a large percentage of my high school classmates were born in foreign countries, or they were the first of their family to be born in the U.S. Twenty girls lived on my floor freshman year at UCSB. Amongst that small group, the languages represented included Bengali, Urdu, Farsi, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Spanish. No joke. Immigrants have made invaluable contributions to American society, and diversity is just the surface.
Engine Advocacy is trying to change policy conversations on immigration by re-educating decisionmakers and the American mainstream. Instead of focusing on illegal immigration, Engine talks about the value of STEM-educated (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) immigrants to economic growth in the U.S. Chloe’s dad is one of these immigrants, and she celebrated her U.S. citizenship more enthusiastically than her own birthday.
Engine’s research indicates that for “every 5 H1B visa holders, there are an additional 9 jobs for Americans born here.” My friend and mentor Jennifer Kenny has worked in the U.S. as an engineer and IT strategist since she graduated college. When I asked her about supporting skilled immigration, specifically of STEM workers, she says, “It’s a no-brainer. [Ireland] paid for my education, but I’ve paid over 20 years of taxes to the American government.”
And how many jobs has she created in that time? “Oh, not that many. Maybe 50 or 60.” Not that many, huh? Maybe it’s not that many when California’s unemployment rate sits at 10.9%, but those 50 or 60 jobs have certainly generated economic growth and empowerment for the people she hired.
Even if supporting STEM-educated immigrants is a no-brainer, we can’t stop there. In 2010, 15.1% of people in the U.S. were considered ‘poor,’ and that’s with a conservative measuring system. Job creation is crucial to sustained economic growth, but too many Americans can’t step into the technical jobs created in STEM fields. Increased computer literacy and technological retraining should be an equally important measure of American economic success. No matter how much awareness education advocates undertake, it will be hard to convince people in a cycle of poverty to get behind new immigration while they themselves are getting left behind. The brain drain doesn’t just happen when highly educated, visionary people leave the U.S. because they can’t get through the immigration process. It also happens when we only have a 75.5% high school graduation rate nationwide. It also happens when chronic homelessness and mass incarceration are an American reality. The dream which brought millions of immigrants here –and which fuels incredible innovation within our borders–will not survive if these inequities remain unchecked.
If supporting policy for skilled immigration is a no-brainer, and it retains additional brain capacity for American society, then it seems we’ll have a critical concentration on our hands. So, let’s use it. Let’s use it to challenge systemic inequality in the land of liberty, to look outside the possibility of new, sexy technology to solve the really tough, perennial questions dogging our economic system.
I’m new to the immigration issue area, but I’ll be out there looking for solutions.
What about you: any ideas?
(Photo credit to Nickelodeon, found on http://www.fanspot.com.)