Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Who Are the "Best and the Brightest"?

Most of you never met my maternal grandfather. His Yiddish name was Shmu'el Feivel (which became Samuel Philip) and according to his immigration documents, he arrived in the United States from Lithuania in 1910.  Back then, European Jews were being persecuted or treated harshly, and their economic opportunities were limited. And so, like many immigrants from many countries, he decided to seek a better life in America.

My grandfather was a tailor. He came here speaking perhaps two words of English, and while he was a quick learner, till the day he died, he spoke it with a heavy accent. He never got rich, he never became famous, but he adapted well to his new country; he got married, had three kids (one of whom was my mother), and was probably pleased that in America, he was no longer treated like he had been in the old country.

But I wonder if he would even be admitted today, given our president saying we need to move to a "merit-based" system of immigration.  Did my grandfather have sufficient merit?  After all, he was not very educated, didn't speak English, and had very little money. Further, he did not know any people in the US who could vouch for the fact that he would work hard and cause no problem to anyone.  He believed, as many immigrants did back then, that America was a nation of immigrants, and he believed that if given a chance, he could make a good life here, for himself and the family he hoped to have.

Beyond the debate over what to do about "the border," and how undocumented immigrants should be treated, there is another story that is getting far less coverage. Mr. Trump wants to restrict legal immigration. He wants to change the policy so that America will only admit the "best and the brightest." The policy he has proposed would cut legal immigration nearly in half, something we have not seen in decades. Currently, the number of immigrants being given visas has dropped by about 12% during his first two years in office; but he wants it to drop even more. He has stated that his ultimate goal is to “curb the flow of low-skilled workers into the United States.”

By those standards, I would not be writing this blog post today, since my grandfather, a "low-skilled worker," would not have been allowed to move here, and my mother would never have been born here either. I find it troubling that the country that once gave unskilled workers from other countries a chance to contribute to the US economy (which, by the way, is still desperate for immigrant labor: many industries are eager to hire them) now suddenly says only geniuses with PhDs need apply.

I hope the president will rethink his position. Today's low-skilled worker may have a family that includes high-achieving kids; or that worker may get the chance to go to school and acquire the skills he or she did not have before.  It's hard to predict how things will turn out, of course. But this much I know: the vast majority of the folks who have come here have been an asset, not a liability. It would be a shame if people who are seeking a better life, like my grandfather did, will now be told they should not seek it here. 

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