Every spring, I spend several days lecturing at a retirement community. Part of what drives Powell Center programming is a desire to more effectively connect the college’s activities to the public sphere, and by presenting lectures about international affairs geared to public audiences, I feel I am discharging that mission, if only in very modest terms. I often talk about security policy, or international affairs in Asia. But two years ago, on the heels of the Powell Center’s immigration conference, I chose to speak on immigration and the role of new Americans in this country.
The room, predictably, was sharply divided. Some of the people wanted to talk about their own immigrant stories, or tell how their parents or grandparents made their way in the United States. Others wanted to talk about people they had known or admired who had come to America from elsewhere. But there were others in the room, people who thought that immigrants were hijacking something precious or distinctive in our society. They worried about jobs, but also a sense of cultural drift. They told wildly inaccurate, improbable stories (one, about a secret highway running from Central America to Kansas City, inside our borders but outside U.S. jurisdiction, over which undocumented workers traveled to take American jobs). Some chided me because they believed that non-citizens were being handsomely rewarded to come to schools like CCNY and get a leg up on Americans of longer standing, who presumably deserved an inside track to success.
Profoundly American Few of them, I think, believed my response—that we are prevented from awarding scholarship stipends to students with no legal status. Many would not entertain the idea that America’s great danger is not that we will fail to find everyone work, but that we will drive critical skills and expertise away from our homeland and into other economies. More frustratingly, few seemed capable of recognizing how profoundly American so many of our undocumented students had always been.
I have for 20 years taught students who were born to parents without U.S. citizenship or status, who came to the U.S. at an early age, and know no other home. They may speak Bengali in their kitchen, but know nothing of Bangladesh; they may be El Salvadoran without any memory of El Salvador. Many come to City College, and to other campuses across the country, to place a down-payment on a hopeful future, knowing that their degree would not automatically open doors or secure employment—but betting everything on a more promising future in a world more open to them. Lately, it’s become fashionable to call these students “dreamers,” after the great and optimistic stock they all placed in the Dream Act, which would provide them a path to citizenship. But they were also, in that great leap of faith, in their inclination to make education a top priority, dreamers in a deeply American way: They dreamt in a tradition that reflexively expects hard work to find a reward, anticipates that things will get better over time, and trusts that our great institutions generally, if not at every moment, direct us toward justice and humanity.
The Value of Inclusion The president’s recent announcement on immigration reform does not—as he is quick to say—replace the Dream Act in form or substance. But in one day, it provided a chance to some of the very best students I have ever taught, and ensured that their skills, and energy—and their great American optimism—will be part of what we can claim as a people. We will be better for their inclusion, and we should not miss the chance to build from this temporary and limited measure a reform of greater scope, and power, and permanence.—Vince Boudreau
Vince Boudreau is director of the Colin Powell Center. Read more about him and our other authors here.