Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Immigration Tradition

Two weeks ago at the Hispanic Choice Awards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Obed Arango received an award for the Education Champion of the Year.

Before stepping up to the podium to receive the award statuette, the audience was shown a short video.

In it, Obed recalled immigrating to the United States 17 years ago with his wife — a U.S. citizen — and their two daughters, both born in Mexico.

“One of the big questions I had was what am I going to do with my life in a new country? In Mexico I was a journalist and a tenured professor at the National University. But here — in the United States — I was nobody.”

I asked him how he transitioned from being “nobody” to being the recipient of the Education Champion award.

“I saw new immigrants struggling with their kids’ education;the parents themselves struggling with their development as new immigrants – just as I was. I had the idea of setting up a place where members of the immigrant community could develop their talents — a cultural center where we as immigrants could discover who we are in a new country.”

Obed is a founding member and executive director of Norristown, Pennsylvania’s Center for Culture, Art, Training and Education (CCATE), where over 100 families participate in classes offered seven days a week. As the program moves from afternoons into evenings, the student body changes from children to their migrant parents.

Obed refers to the immigrant community, wherever it is, as La Villa Inmigrante, a virtual village, where children can remain bilingual and bicultural and the parents can maintain contact with their country of origin even as they learn to be part of an adopted country to which they contribute their talents and skills.

In a much different framework, I’ve watched a governmental process spanning borders and facilitating bilingual bicultural life in this hemisphere. One-by-one, and mainly in the 1990s, Latin American countries have revised their laws to allow for dual nationality. Panama, Cuba, and Haiti are the exceptions.

I was pleased to hear that law students at Villanova University provide legal assistance for those members of CCATE wishing to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Upon becoming a citizen of the United States, an immigrant immediately acquires the right to vote. This leads to a new respect from candidates running for office — as well as elected officials — toward the immigrants personally and their countries of origin.

From a practical point of view, Latin American governments enjoy having the backing of a block of sympathetic U.S. voters.

However, from the perspective of sovereignty and national pride, it’s a difficult topic to discuss in legislatures.Lawmakers don’t want to appear encouraging of their citizens to take on another country’s citizenship — as if pushing them out the door. Dual nationality issomething you also won’t heardiscussed in the U.S. Congress.

In Mexico, during the Zedillo administration (1994-2000),the constitution was amended to allow citizens to maintain their Mexican citizenship after becoming citizens of another country.

President Zedillo received an unexpected boost in this campaign when Mexican-born Mario J. Molina shared the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1995.

Years earlier, Dr. Molina had given up his Mexican citizenship and taken U.S. citizenship. He explained he had reached a point in chemistry research where he needed security clearances only available to U.S. citizens in order to work in federally funded laboratories in the United States. At the time, Mexican law prohibited dual nationality.

President Zedillo stepped in and said he would do something to rectify this for this distinguished Mexican. The executive and legislative branches of Mexico’s government had already begun sotto voce discussions with the intent of modifying the prohibition of dual nationality for Mexican citizens.Reinstating Dr. Molina’s Mexican citizenship was the catalyst needed to push it through.Dr. Molina currently serves on Presidential Commissions in both Mexico and the United States.

After the 1997 change in Mexican law, many expected a surge in Mexicans requesting dual U.S. citizenship. It hasn’t happened.

The Pew Research Center has found that “nearly two thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States have not yet taken that step. Their rate of naturalization — 36 percent — is only half that of legal immigrants naturalizing from all other countries combined.”

Asked why they hadn’t naturalized, Pew found that a quarter of Mexican immigrants said there were personal barriers such as a lack of English proficiency. Only 30 percent of Hispanic legal permanent residents said they speak English “very well” or “pretty well”. 

Others cited the cost of applying as the barrier. The United States doesn’t recognize the brain-drain of the Molinas, Obeds and other immigrant professionals — choosing to focus on poorer undocumented workers. A recent excess of anti-Mexican rhetoric by some U.S. presidential candidates has been met with considerable anger by Mexicans both in the United States and in Mexico. This rhetoric may be the catalyst for recognition of La Villa Inmigrante and the importance of spreading programs like CCATE’s throughout the United states with a side benefit of teaching the importance dual-citizenship.

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