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The Importance of National Efforts to Integrate Immigrants

Created: 28 December, 2012
Updated: 26 July, 2022
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6 min read

Commentary:
By Henry Cisneros

One of the widely accepted conclusions from the recent election results is that some form of immigration reform will be possible. Businesses want legal workers, Democrats want to hold their edge with Latino voters, Republicans learned the importance of the Latino vote, and the American people generally are more willing to consider constructive immigration measures. While public discussion about immigration usually focuses on the mechanisms and procedures to create a workable legal framework, one of the most important dimensions of a successful immigration policy is the integration of immigrants into the mainstream of American Society.

The integration of immigrants, particularly the large number of poor immigrants, is both an opportunity and a challenge for our country. The opportunity is to educate and prepare America’s newest immigrants so that their contributions of work, economic potential, and brainpower help build the nation. The challenge is the flip side of the same coin, to educate and prepare immigrant families so that their present poverty, a lack of education, and daunting barriers do not keep them in a secondary class for generations and deny the nation their energies and ambitions.

The immigrant families to whom I refer are a group which includes those here legally on various permits as well as those who are here undocumented but who would be given status as legal workers under most reform proposals. Some in both groups are recent arrivals and others have been here for decades and have children and well established roots in the life of our country. The U.S. Census tells us that the foreign born population is about 40 million people and, of those, more than 20% are living in poverty because of low wages and low skills.

My personal experience with low income immigrants tells me that the vast majority are hard-working, law-abiding, and intensely dedicated to their families and churches. After years of meeting such immigrants in cities in every part of the nation —usually Latinos —my most recent experience is as the volunteer chairman of American Sunrise, a neighborhood non-profit my wife and I founded to help families from this group in our home neighborhood in San Antonio. We began by helping families upgrade their homes and offering after-school tutoring in math and reading for children from a one-square mile area around our home. But it has become obvious that the families need a good deal more help. They need guidance and advice, training and encouragement in order to keep their families on the march toward self-improvement that is at the core of the American way.

Poor immigrant families have a very hard time today. It is true of course that the path for immigrants has always been hard: relocate in a new place without facility in the language, without knowledge of local customs, and cut off from family support. However, in the early decades of the last century, during the last great wave of immigration, there were many forces bent in Americanizing the immigrants in the big cities of the nation. Churches wanted congregants, employers wanted workers, political machines wanted voters, and the settlement houses wanted to help the new arrivals. The street-level life of America’s cities, though often brutish and even cruel, was full of connections and outreach. Today’s low-income immigrants confront a job market that requires more sophisticated skills, cities that are more spread out, and habits of modern American life result in less connected communities.

Yet as hard as life is for today’s poor immigrants, most are going to be here for the long haul. We can also say with certainty that they are going to be numerous. But will they be numerous, undercompensated, undereducated and, in time, resigned to second class status? Or will they be numerous, educated, productive, and a source of youthful energy for every institution in American Society? One way or the other they will be numerous enough to make a difference, to move the needle of national progress in one direction or the other.

At our neighborhood non-profit, American Sunrise, we have set out to engage low-income immigrants in charting a life plan for their families. Our American Sunrise Pledge consists of the following ten points:

1. We will add English to our first language and learn the traditions of America
2. We will prepare to become model U. S. citizens the way countless immigrants have done before
3. We will constantly strive to improve our work skills and strive to meet our family’s immediate financial needs
4. We will prepare for our long-term financial responsibilities, including making plans for savings, housing, college funds, health insurance and retirement
5. We will be a learning family and we will adopt a spirit of life-long learning and stress the importance of education, including partnering with our school’s teachers
6. We will make it our family’s goal to establish college graduation or advanced education as a family tradition
7. We will learn healthy eating and exercise habits and be attentive to our family’s medical needs
8. We will seek balance in our family life by spending quality time together and weave a fabric of mutual support
9. We will accept community and church responsibilities and give back from the blessings bestowed upon us
10. We will carry our home country in our heart but we commit to our obligations in the United States

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We ask the families to take the Pledge and commit to come to classes and work sessions over a span of years. American Sunrise pledges for its part to secure the best advisors, teachers, and program providers to help each family. We have found the families to be serious, enthusiastic, and dedicated. They work long hours, often at multiple jobs; they are humble, even shy; and they are behind academically, sometimes to the point of personal fears about education. But they desperately want to learn and they try hard for their families. Their hopes, ambitions, and striving are exactly the fuel that has always propelled America forward and which is available in abundant supply in these immigrants.

American Sunrise is working with community service providers to put the ten points of Our Pledge before young families in schools and in early childhood centers. We are presenting it as a life plan to help immigrants integrate into American society. It will provide direction for the families who are willing to strive today for a better tomorrow. I have always felt that the most compelling narrative in the American story is that of the strivers. America is fortunate to have millions of low-income immigrants who with a little help and support are the strivers we need.

Henry Cisneros is the Executive Chairman of the San Antonio-based CityView companies, which work with urban homebuilders to create homes priced within the range of average families. After serving three terms as a City Councilmember, in 1981, Mr. Cisneros became the first Hispanic-American mayor of a major U.S. city, San Antonio, Texas for four terms. In 1984, he was interviewed by the Democratic Presidential nominee as a possible candidate for Vice President of the United States. He can be reached through his executive assistant, Sylvia Arce-Garcia, at asotello@cityview.com.

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