It’s the year of presidential politics and we are being bombarded with discussion about immigrants. Some presidential candidates think we should be fearful of immigrants, and probably all foreigners.
I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about this acrimony with my 14-year-old son, Aaron. We watch and listen to the news together, and even some of the debates. We aren’t afraid of immigrants. In fact, Aaron’s pediatrician is an immigrant. Both here and in our travels we’re always running into immigrants.
He and I have been trying to figure out, “What’s going on?” Immigrants are an important part of our America, yet the people in the news often suggest that we should be afraid. Should we?
I have been reflecting of late on what I really think about immigrants. Do I feel threatened? What role do immigrants play in our community?
In my view there are substantial benefits to America from a steady flow of immigrants. First, there is the infusion of new energy. For the most part immigrants have come here to work, and work hard. They’re ready to work long hours to get ahead. Having that strong work ethic in our community is valuable.
Second, they are risk-takers, almost natural entrepreneurs. When Aaron and I travel we stay in inexpensive franchise motels, almost all of them owned and operated by immigrants. After noticing this, I started to ask about it. Often they were family operations, providing employment for many relatives.
These folks are willing to work hard and look ahead multiple generations, raising children as Americans and seeing them, and their children, succeed and thrive. They are living the American dream and in doing so they serve to remind us of our own humble immigrant origins and how fortunate we are to live in this great land of opportunity.
And yet, I read that many people are afraid of immigrants. One insight into why this might be is “invisibility.” We tend to ignore the unfamiliar and, as a result, we might not notice the immigrant members of our community and their valuable contributions.
When you cannot “see” people (and I mean more than just vision), it becomes more difficult to accept those folks as part of our community and nation.
And, when those same people are speaking a different language, this ignoring is reinforced — and it can go both ways. A friend of mine who speaks fluent Spanish tells the story of playing soccer with Spanish-speaking men from Central America. Throughout the game, they could not understand why my friend always seemed to know what their game plans were. To them, the possibility of him listening in on these plans was “invisible.”
Immigrants might look different, and they almost certainly speak a different language or with a strong accent. As part of my inquiry (and part of my responsibility in raising a young son), I have tried to speak with people who seem to be from somewhere else.
I ask simply, “Where are you from originally?” Or, perhaps I’ll ask about how it is to speak, and think, while switching back and forth between two languages.
This always leads to something interesting. I’ve learned about folks moving here recently from Samoa or from Laos during the chaos after the Vietnam War. How one businessman is investing his profits back home building vacation condos for “gringos.” People like to tell others their story; all you have to do is ask.
So here’s my plea to you: Over the next few weeks, please notice the people around you. Don’t let them be invisible, but take them into your world view. And, if you can manage it, talk with them. You can start by simply saying, “How are you doing?”
I trust that you will be pleasantly surprised, as I was. Immigrants are our neighbors, the folks we see every day. They are not people to fear, but rather to value as an important part of our rich American heritage.
And, they are vital to our future as a strong and thriving nation.
George Walter is the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s environmental program manager, and is a member of The Olympian’s 2016 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org