Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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American amnesia

Q: A recent series in The Post painted a bleak picture of the prospects for millions of U.S.-born children of Hispanic immigrants, who will play an outsized role in the future of the American workforce but are dropping out of high school in greater numbers than other any other U.S.-born racial or ethnic group. What needs to be done to help more of these young people succeed in school and get college degrees?

They risked perilous journeys to come to this country, crossing national boundaries in crowded, unhealthy conditions with little more than the clothes they wore. They arrived penniless, but rich with ambition to explore America's "streets paved with gold."

Instead, they were mocked because they did not know English, or spoke with accents that invited derision. They were relegated to the most menial labor earning just a few dollars a week. Their children were numerous, and some were raised by others in the extended family because these immigrant parents could not manage so many children on the low wages of housekeepers and laborers. They died relatively young; their grandchildren never knew them.

They were my grandparents, the Irish and Italian immigrants who were part of the great migration of those European ethnics to this nation in the early part of the 20th century. Their children, my parents and their siblings, the first generation in this country, finished high school in the Depression Era, fought and held families together through World War II, moved to suburbia and began to live the American Dream in the postwar era.

Their grandchildren, the second generation -- we Baby Boomers -- went to college and entered the professional workforce, soon earning more money in a single year than those immigrant ancestors could have imagined in a lifetime. We are living their dreams.

American memory is often notoriously short. The hardships revealed in the recent Washington Post series on the condition of Latino immigrant children in this country echo the travails of other immigrant communities across the last two centuries. The historical pattern of immigrant success in the United States reveals that it takes two to four generations to move from poverty to economic security, from high school dropout to college graduate.

However, each generation of immigrants also has faced unique political and social circumstances that either propel or hinder their opportunities for successful assimilation into the American middle class. The impact of World War II and its aftermath on the sociology of this nation cannot be under-estimated; war service broke down barriers among the ethnic immigrant populations, and the G.I. Bill turned the once-elite idea of college into an egalitarian necessity for the postwar workforce. Ethnic identities faded in favor of a uniform expression of American red-white-blue patriotism, except for the occasional wearing o' the green on St. Patrick's Day.

The current massive Hispanic migration into the United States comes at a time of economic stress, rising unemployment, and fear of "outsiders" arising after the attacks on Sept. 11 2001. The anti-immigrant fervor that roils much political debate (and the ugly exchanges on the "comments" section of the Post's series on the Latino immigrants -- comments made by people whose ancestors might have been among once-despised immigrant populations, such as the Irish) sends a message to young Hispanics that they are not wanted here. Latinos need not apply. "Send them back" sends a message of a closed society shrinking in on itself.

In such a climate, the incentives to stay in school, go to college, earn a degree and become another American success story are diminished. Our "nation of immigrants" has forgotten its immigrant history. This dangerous amnesia will delay the full assimilation of Latinos into American society.

Lawmakers and public officials need to show some backbone in establishing laws and policies that will support effective socialization of immigrants, rather than fostering continuing isolation and growth of the illegal subculture. Access to education, including higher education, health care and other social services should not be used as weapons that have the result of forcing illegal immigrants into even more deception and increased impoverishment. Certainly, where legal U.S. citizens (the children born here) live in households with illegal immigrants (the parents), an enlightened national policy will remove the stigma and fear, providing the means for those families to live healthy and productive lives.

Schools, colleges and universities have a large role to play in countering the negative stereotypes and forces of discrimination that discourage Hispanic students, as well as other immigrants today. Promoting college access for Hispanic students is vitally important, combined with ensuring full financial aid support.

At Trinity, several hundred Latina women are working hard to achieve their college degrees. One of these women wrote in her application essay for college, "I am a proud Hispanic woman and I hope to become the first in my family to go to college. Some people have told me: 'You will never go to college,' or, 'Because you are poor, you will end up working in McDonald's and will never be successful in life.' I will prove them wrong." She is well on her way to doing just that.

Because of her determination, her children will thrive, becoming successful Americans in the same way that previous immigrant generations from Ireland, Italy and other nations became great American success stories.

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 14, 2009; 9:48 AM ET  | Category:  education Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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