When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.»
With these words Donald J. Trump began his improbable, yet winning, presidential campaign. This statement, along with his ongoing shock talk and executive orders, has been taken as an all-out assault on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
Neither Trump’s verbosity nor the gloomy protestations have been good for Mexican-Americans or the U.S.
The Mexican-American community would be better served by a different argument, one that harkens back to another president’s more eloquent flair — John F. Kennedy’s «ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.» It’s a perspective that calls for the full assimilation of immigrants into the broader American family in a manner that is positive, patriotic and productive for immigrant families, and also for our nation. Such a position promotes immigrants as civically engaged, not as victims of American society in need of restitution, rather as proactive stakeholders in America’s continued development and prosperity. This is a centrist view that may even encourage unexpected political alliances.
In the hot immigration debate, assimilation is rarely discussed or encouraged. Right-wing nativists believe Mexicans won’t assimilate, and the far-left multiculturalists think they shouldn’t. What a way to wall off Mexican immigrants by both sides of the political extremes.
It’s no surprise then that overall assimilation rates for Mexican-Americans do not match those of other immigrant groups, as the Manhattan Institute concluded in its 2013 report «Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in Post-Recession America.»
Assimilation is certainly not an easy nor a politically correct process. Mexican immigrants are one of many protagonists in the challenging American story or as author Norman Podhoretz put it, the «brutal bargain.»
In his 1967 book, «Making It,» Podhoretz narrates the tough assimilation journey for those who come to the United States to work hard and get ahead, and in the process are challenged in their own cultural and social identity to fit in and succeed in the land of opportunity. This necessary give and take hasn’t always been pretty, but it has worked for past immigrants and their families and has always worked for the United States.
The Mexican community should not be underestimated in its own ability to assimilate as our Irish, Polish, Italian and other forebears once did. But assimilation shouldn’t happen by default; it needs to be encouraged, guided and nurtured.
Mexican-Americans would be better positioned by claiming its own «up-by-the-bootstraps» story and own it, not out of political expediency, but as a strategy to establish long-term roots as Americans who have a stake in their own success as well as that of the U.S.
However, assimilation calls for more than a quid pro quo. It requires one to embrace and adopt our nation’s democratic values, principles and a unifying English language. It is the process by which immigrants become investors in the success of their new home nation.
Contrary to the right and left elite, assimilation does not imply the abandonment of one’s native history, culture or language. These elements put a context to the immigrant experience. They are an intentional recognition of our national motto — e pluribus unum — out of many, one.
No doubt, there are social problems that our community needs to own up to and address, including a high school dropout rate that remains too high; a violent gang culture that ensnares, if not kills off, our youth; and drug trafficking in our midst that can be traced back to Mexico’s cartels.
Overall, Mexican immigrants have the right ingredients for American success: family-oriented, a tremendous work ethic and an entrepreneurial sense to get ahead. They are driven by opportunity, not social justice.
And despite the immigration hyperbole, American assimilation remains the global model in how our nation weaves its newest immigrants into the American fabric.
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are living out that uniquely American story of immigrants seeking opportunity, enduring their own diasporic hardship, paying their dues and in many cases serving and defending our country, all in order to achieve that sometimes elusive American dream — not as victims of our nation, but as our nation’s builders.
That’s what has always made America great.
Juan Rangel is president of Mastery Consulting LLC and director of the Mexican American Leadership, Policy and Action Committee. He is the former CEO of United Neighborhood Organization and founder of the UNO Charter School Network.