Diversity in Academe 2013

What Immigrants Bring to America

June 09, 2013

Immigration opponents often don't understand how varied are our stories. Even immigration supporters sometimes treat us as charity cases who should be forever grateful for being taken onto American shores. The institutions that employ us also seem to expect exceptionally audible and constant thanks for having jobs in this land of opportunity.

Anyone with a good job and prospects, immigrant or not, should probably feel grateful in this rocky economy. But on the whole, immigrants contribute as much as the American-born. Yes, we have good reason to come here; but don't forget that you have equally good reason to welcome us.

I never went to school here. I attained my undergraduate degrees in Nigeria and concluded my graduate studies in Canada. I had four years of college teaching under my belt in Nigeria when I took my first job in the United States 22 years ago. Among my friends and colleagues in Nigeria, at least eight of us relocated here about the same time. Not one of us owed a single farthing of our training to the American government or to private institutions.

So, although we are grateful for the reception accorded and the opportunity afforded us, our hosts should consider that the advantages have not been one-sided. America obtained a crop of scholars, already seasoned, ready to hit the ground running at zero—yes, zero—cost to the American taxpayer or other agencies. I like to joke with my students that I am part of Nigeria's foreign aid to the United States. On a more serious note, our credentials were what made us eminent candidates for fast-tracking us through the immigration formalities—the processing fees for which were paid, by the way, by us.

In the problematic racial ordering that continues to frame American identity, my peers and I are designated "black." That classification doesn't accommodate the complexity of our historical and cultural background, but, a cynic might argue, it helps fill in a demographic column. We are bureaucratically attractive to the United States as an easy distraction from America's beggaring of its own real African-Americans. Why invest, when faced with diversity demands, in local black talent when you can buy it more cheaply from abroad? Many of us take seriously our responsibility to help our adopted country to increase the pool of qualified homegrown talent of all ethnicities and cultures, teaching not just through our classroom pedagogy but as models and mentors.

Not only do immigrants not drain the American economy, we contribute to it. I'm of a generation made up largely of what might be called deliberate immigrants who came planning to stay. Many Africans in the United States from earlier generations were "accidental immigrants" who merely wanted to work a while, make some money, then repatriate to their homelands. Years later, they remained optimistic that they would be going back soon. But somehow the ledger was perpetually unbalanced, the bills never abated, and the nest egg never seemed to be there. Never mind the pittances we send to our countries of origin. Whether we're deliberate or accidental Americans, whether we're employees, self-employed, business owners, or inventors, the bulk of our earnings stay in the good old U.S. of A.

Teachers like me are more than the sum of our credentials, and our biographies inform our pedagogy. Our students learn from our stories about other ways of being. Even the way we speak and use our common language, English, is an enlightening cultural prism.

I recall the generosity of the Immigration and Naturalization Service officer in Chicago who interviewed me for my green card and worked to get me a temporary one on the same day. He was trying to expedite a long-scheduled but deferred research trip because, as he so kindly put it, I am the kind of immigrant he'd like to see more of in America. He epitomized the kind of mutual appreciation that is too often lacking.

No, I'm not asking you to hug an immigrant today. A little acknowledgment, now and then, of what we bring to America would suffice. We, too, are invested in this country.

Olúfémi Táíwò is a professor of philosophy and global African studies, and director of the Global African Studies Program, at Seattle University.