We talk about Jaime Escalante a lot here at TBS. We even have an award named after him. That’s because we tend to think of the late, great educator as a model to which all educators should aspire. But if Republicans in Congress and the White House had their way, the legendary educator would never have been allowed to set foot in this country.
The subject of the celebrated 1987 film Stand and Deliver, Escalante came to national attention when he guided a classroom of disadvantaged and overlooked teens to a 100% pass rate on the College Board’s rigorous Advanced Placement calculus test.
Escalante’s model is extraordinary not just for its results but because he refused to accept the conclusion that low-income children had lesser capabilities. He resolved that these children were the victims of low expectations and academic neglect, and proved as much by pushing his students to be their very best while giving them the practical, psychological and intellectual tools to get there.
Escalante changed the face of education and altered the way we look at opportunities for low-income, disadvantaged, minority and immigrant children. Because of Jamie Escalante, the future is so much brighter, not just for the students he mentored, but for all those whose education was inspired by his example.
Today, 30 years after Escalante became an education superstar, the Trump Administration’s has endorsed a bill on legal immigration that would have prevented Mr. Escalante from ever reaching America’s shores, let alone its students.
In early August, Republican Senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and David Perdue (Georgia) announced the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, which aims to cut the number of green cards issued in the United States by roughly 50% over the next ten years. In order to do so, the legislation would replace the family-based immigration system that has prevailed for the past 50 years with a merit-based system. The Trump administration offered effusive praise for, and defense of, the policy proposal.
For all the remarkable merits that Escalante could claim by the time of his passing in 2010, none would have gotten him past Trump’s gatekeepers in 2017. It prompts an important question. How many brilliant, talented, and virtuous citizens might this policy cost us?
The RAISE Act
Legal immigration to the United States is at an all time high. Nearly one million immigrants from around the world make their way here every year in search of opportunity, intent on making an impact, hopeful that their children and grandchildren will have access to more than they did. In spite of the unwelcoming tone, the fractious racial realities, and the economic disparity that have boiled over in recent years, America remains a place unique in the opportunities, access, and liberties it avails, even if newcomers have to claw their way upward.
The RAISE Act is a strike against this opportunity for clawing. The proposed merit-based system would score the suitability of applicants using factors like age, education level, English proficiency, expected salary, intentions to invest in the stock market and, whether or not one is in possession of either Nobel Prizes or Olympic Medals.
Are you qualified to be an American? I’m a fourth-generation East Coast native and according to the RAISE Act’s point system, I just barely make the cut.
What about you?
You can check out the actual text of the proposed legislation or you can just go ahead over to Time.com and take their survey. Answer a few quick multiple choice questions to find out just how well you’d fare at meeting the 30-point minimum threshold for entry. I eked it out with a score of 32, and that’s only because I earned both a Nobel Prize and an Olympic Silver Medal in 1996, both for my pioneering work in the field of beach volleyball.
Otherwise, I might be facing deportation.
In all seriousness though, my great-grandparents—speaking mostly Yiddish, armed with few practical New World skills, and more than likely arriving here without active E-Trade accounts—would not have been allowed in.
Nor would we have allowed in Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany; nor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose English was so poor that he was overdubbed for his first American film, Hercules in New York; nor Hall of Fame basketball player Hakeem Olajuwon, who was barely recruited, and in fact arrived here from his native Nigeria without a guaranteed roster spot on the University of Houston’s Cougars.
Each of these immigrants rose from non-fluency to prominence and then to enormous success, all after their arrival here. That each of these immigrants arrived here at a different point in our recent history underscores the promise that has always been uniquely American. Our commonality is our ambition. Diversity is our strength and the source of our greatness.
English-Speaking Huddled Masses Only
Like Kissinger, Schwarzenegger and Olajuwon, Escalante would never have contributed to our greatness. Jay Mathews at the Washington Post explains that when Escalante arrived here from Bolivia in 1963, his English was terrible, his educational certifications carried little weight in American schools, and he began his career as a bus boy at a local Pasadena restaurant. Under the terms of the RAISE Act, says Mathews, Escalante would have been deemed a poor candidate for entry.
Mathews observes that:
“The proposed immigration rules include a point system based in part on mastery of English. That would have stopped Escalante. It took him 10 years of study to learn the language and acquire California versions of the teaching credentials he had already earned in Bolivia.”
Today, Escalante is not only revered in the field of education, but a towering example of what happens when you open your doors. He was also a lifelong Republican, Mathews makes a point of noting.
Escalante’s example is a strong anecdotal counterpoint to the ideology that only those already indoctrinated in American customs, culture and language belong here. Escalante’s contributions illustrate just exactly the kind of ambition, talent, and intellect we’ll be deprived of as a nation if we go down the path that Donald Trump has endorsed.
We Aren’t Family
As it turns out though, the new policy wouldn’t just impede the entrance of demographics who fail the merit-based threshold. Those who have a provable ability to contribute immediately and significantly to our economy would also be locked out, and it would be to our collective detriment.
Take, for instance, the likely impact this would have on Indians, the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States. As of 2010, 87.2% of Indian-American adults were foreign-born. All evidence suggests that we have benefited handsomely from this population’s arrival, and its perception of the United States as an economic Promised Land. This perception has been rewarded with tremendous success. Indian-born residents in the US enjoy income levels two times higher, and educational levels three times greater, than the national average.
Of course, much of that population is comprised of individuals that were advanced in their education before coming here. Many also learned to speak fluent English in their home country. This means a good portion of the Indian immigrant population would fare just fine on a merit-based system.
But there’s a huge catch.
The merit-based system aims to replace the family-based system that has guided American immigration policy for half-a-century. In doing so, it would slam the breaks on a long and steady stream of incoming applicants, many that would easily meet the RAISE Act’s discriminatory merit-based threshold.
Under the current system, legal residents may sponsor extended family members and ultimately bring them to the United States to become permanent residents. In 2015 alone, 673,000 immigrant visas were granted this way, in many cases reuniting Indian families here in the US after long periods of difficult separation. The new proposal would whittle family-based visas to a quota of 88,000 a year.
To say nothing of the barriers it would throw in front of aspiring immigrant families, this would be an enormously devastating outcome for the tens of thousands of Indian immigrants who have been waiting for upwards of a decade for visa processing. The policy leaves unaddressed the matter of what happens to those who have already endured the uncertainty and separation from loved ones while awaiting their turn to enter the US legally.
Without any mention of their fate in the current RAISE Act proposal, it seems the plan would be to place wait-listed applicants back into a general pool where they would then compete for far fewer spots.
The Brain Drain
The authors and advocates of this bill—the President included—appear unconcerned with the impact on immigrant families and lives. But perhaps its supporters might at least consider the poorly-conceived economic premise behind it. The bill’s true agenda, to significantly reduce the number of foreign-born people coming into America, takes as its premise the notion that immigrant populations somehow impede on the ability or access of American-born citizens to jobs, university rosters, tax dollars or any number of other resources or opportunities. This premise reflects a deep misunderstanding of the American economy and a racially driven disregard for the contributions made by immigrant Americans.
Indeed, whether obstructed by the conditions of a new merit-based system, or detained from family, those who are turned off, or turned away, will simply be forced to contribute their diligence, courage, talent, excellence, and vision to nations more deserving and embracive of their gifts.
Examples like Escalante, Olajuwon and even my great grandparents are, admittedly anecdotal. These are isolated examples of immigrants who arrived here without any of the qualifications demanded by the RAISE act and who consequently survived, succeeded, contributed, and in some cases, even achieved brilliance. And they did it without depriving American-born citizens of their opportunities or fortunes. Don’t let political rhetoric tell you otherwise.
Still, it’s not really about these individual stories. We can get personal about it. Indeed, so many of us are here only because of the opportunities afforded to those who came before us. But there’s compelling economic evidence that the RAISE Act is simply bad policy, regardless of your personal stake in the immigration debate. If on its surface the aim of the bill is to create domestic job opportunities by reducing the number of immigrants competing for jobs, in reality it will significantly reduce the number of capable, qualified, skilled and credentialed individuals living and working in America.
And this is not because American students or domestic laborers lack skill or talent. It’s because our economy has always been fueled by the constant addition of skill and talent, by the steady inward flow of ambitious newcomers. Our schools and corporations and communities, our economy on the whole, all require this steady inward flow to flourish.
In fact, this need has never been greater than it is at this very moment.
According to an article in the Economist, legal immigrants are increasingly showing up here with college degrees already in tow. And this is true even under an immigration system in which the vast majority of new arrivals are here by virtue of family relations or sponsorship. This actually represents a heightened set of skills and education among immigrants over the last two decades. Whereas 27% of immigrants arriving here had a college degree between 1986 and 1990, today nearly half of new arrivals have at least a Bachelor’s Degree.
In fact, this is true among immigrants who are not here legally as well. Interestingly, not only has the number of undocumented immigrants fallen over the last several years, but the percentage of those here with college degrees has steadily risen. Today, nearly one fifth of graduate immigrants are undocumented and nearly a third of all refugees have at least one degree.
These are immigrants who have come here to contribute. And in fact, in a remarkable number of instances, they arrive here far more prepared to contribute than our own native citizens. According to the Economist, immigrants are collectively better educated than Americans in no fewer than twenty-six states.
That’s a damning figure, one that suggests we would actually be wholly unprepared to fill a great many of skilled and technical jobs in our labor market were we to dramatically stem the flow of immigrants to the US.
An article from the New York Times warned of this pattern as early as 2013, noting that:
“Silicon Valley companies, warning of an acute labor shortage, say it is too costly to retrain older workers…and that the country is not producing enough younger Americans with the precise skills the industry needs.”
In other words, it’s impossible to overstate the impact this policy orientation could have on our ability to attract, and our willingness to take in, newcomers who will ultimately contribute to our nation’s educational diversity and economic strength.
It’s equally unclear how this policy could possibly benefit a nation whose retiree population will soon outnumber its domestic workforce; whose universities have always drawn the world’s sharpest minds; whose pathways for opportunity have historically allowed newcomers to arrive with nothing and achieve everything; which has always defined itself by the contribution of its greatest citizens, no matter where they were born (sometimes because of where they were born).
Benefit of the Doubt
Even if the RAISE Act’s chief sponsors have determined to pre-judge the value of each and every dreamer before they arrive in America, I’m choosing to give Congress the benefit of the doubt.
This is a bad bill, and not just because it’s cruel, discriminatory and counterintuitive to the spirit of the United States. It is all these things, but it’s more. It’s economically irresponsible and ideologically irrational.
Logic suggests that a majority in the Senate—which would require leadership on the issue from both sides of the aisle—will reject this bill on its face. Where the principles of our Constitution are concerned, the RAISE Act fails the merit test. The economic negatives alone seem compelling enough to make this a bipartisan nonstarter. Any other outcome could be disastrous for our nation; educationally, economically, and ethically disastrous.
Jaime Escalante believed that every person—given both the chance and the benefit of high expectations—could achieve greatness. For an immigrant to the United States, he seemed to understand the heart of this nation’s promise far greater than Donald Trump.