What do we teach children about immigration?

Source: US Department of Agriculture, Flickr Commons.

Source: US Department of Agriculture, Flickr Commons.

While the U.S. political machine is stalled as House Republicans refuse to put comprehensive immigration reform up for a vote, pro-immigrant and refugee organizations like Welcoming America take on the huge task of involving communities in immigrant integration. These efforts, focused on community-based approaches such as public awareness campaigns, community engagement, and increased education, aim to improve local climates in order to make towns and cities across the country more hospitable, livable, and safe places for immigrants. Organizations engaged in such work are taking powerful and necessary steps to change public opinion and receptiveness toward newcomers. They recognize that social services and English courses are not all that is needed to promote integration, and that without a receptive native population, immigrants face many more challenges in building productive and healthy lives.

But in efforts to shape America into a country that appreciates and honors the contributions of immigrants, it’s almost as if we, as Americans, are playing catch-up and trying to teach adults to take on a welcoming mentality. I can’t help but wonder if the many initiatives to create welcoming communities – to change the very social fabric of towns and cities – would be aided by thinking about welcome as a value that is taught. More specifically, we might not have to spend as much time educating the public about the importance and value of welcoming communities if this value was something we learned at a young age.

I am not a parent myself and probably won’t be one for some time. But because my mother is an early childhood educator, and I grew up helping in her classroom, babysitting, and volunteering to teach Sunday school. Because of this, I often approach issues by thinking about how we learn about them as children – and how those lessons stay with us and color the lens through which we see the world as adults. What we pick and choose to teach children is in some way a distillation of those values and lessons that we see to be the most essential and urgent. We teach small Americans to be kind and to treat others fairly: take turns, follow rules, don’t hurt others. We emphasize safety and respect for peers and authority. In elementary school, we emphasize diversity and understanding differences, and perhaps, as I remember learning, we paint a picture of America as a sort of magical place where everyone is accepted and all different kinds of people contribute to society. It’s difficult for me to even contemplate clearly introducing the ideas of power, discrimination, legal systems, and globalization to kids without my head hurting. One thing I can consider, though, is that human migration, as a web of movement with massive implications both domestically and internationally, can and should be introduced to young people as a fact of the world in which we now live. Not only is the movement of groups of people across borders a key story in the history of our nation and our world, but such movement will only become more commonplace as children grow up in a globalized society.

Those of us interested in migration often emphasize its complexity, and efforts to simplify such a complex phenomenon can feel counterintuitive. But human

First Lady Michelle Obama reads to a classroom. Credit: US Navy, Flickr Commons

First Lady Michelle Obama reads to a classroom. Credit: US Navy, Flickr Commons

movement, particularly as it relates to the United States, can be discussed thoughtfully and fruitfully without taking children through a college-level course on capitalism, exploitation, and global labor flows. The conversation can begin with the origins of this country as a country of immigrants, and the long history of newcomers struggling to integrate and often making great contributions to the economic and social landscape of the nation. Children can understand the narrative of a stranger, leaving home because of hardship, poverty, or violence, seeking out opportunity or safety for himself or his family. The narrative of the foreigner emerges often in children’s literature, from my own favorite The Hundred Dresses to The Country Mouse and the City Mouse. The personal face of immigration and its hardships, which often seems to be missing from our national dialogue on immigration policy, can be accessible and relatable to young people through narrative. We can take these stories and go beyond them into a discussion on the ethical value of welcome.

Why should welcome be a value that is taught? Why not just stop at teaching children that movement is a normal and common part of human existence, and that people are constantly moving around the world? A value judgment on the idea of welcome becomes necessary when immigration impacts our own communities, and we must choose how to react. Welcome is a gushy term, and can mean many things. It often translates into actions that one might think about as apolitical: being friendly and warm, keeping doors open, serving others with hospitality. But welcoming actions, especially when performed amidst a status quo of exclusivity, closed-mindedness, and insulation, can be radical in both message and impact. Within welcome is an understanding of inclusivity: that in our hospitality, we do not pick and choose who is welcome and who is not. Welcoming communities, then, can be a powerful force in shaping the national landscape in spite of what current immigration policy says. Communities have the ability to be broad and open in the way that newcomers are treated, regardless of the goals of the immigration system.

It seems to me that welcoming is a step beyond tolerance, and requires action. For communities to truly be places of welcome for newcomers, we are required to go a step beyond simple understanding and just putting up with the changing environment of our towns and cities. Acts of welcome require working against norms of xenophobia, racism, and classism. Acts of welcome, in a community that has traditionally been unfriendly to strangers, can be acts of resistance, and require the kind of courage that is built upon a belief that hospitality is not just nice but necessary. The U.S. immigration system is broken, and efforts to change long-held prejudice held by American adults are noble and needed. But perhaps fostering an understanding of the value of welcome can be the first step towards building a generation of young people who are active participants in a more welcoming national culture.


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