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We are a nation of migrants, not a collection of diplomas

The rush to embrace only highly educated immigrants reveals our classist elitism

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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The degrees that immigrants (or anyone) have earned should not determine their value as humans. But all too often, alphabet soup on a resume is prized more than character traits like persistence, humility and sacrifice that help a country prosper. It’s as though, when summing up the worth of someone who wants to live in the United States, we forget that a society is forged by more than academic achievement, and that some of our best and brightest don’t have a degree to their name. Likewise, those who would divide the country across racial lines, forsaking democratic values, have degrees from prestigious colleges.

The run-up to the 2020 presidential election reveals this brand of elitism to the light of day. There are plenty of people with college degrees who act on their prejudice day to day — many of them hold and seek public office. Just last week, during the second Democratic presidential debate, we saw some fine examples of classist language, beamed to television screens across the country.

In response to a question regarding the deportation of immigrants, entrepreneur and presidential hopeful Andrew Yang said, “I’m the son of immigrants myself. My father immigrated here as a graduate student and generated over 65 U.S. patents for G.E. and IBM. I think that’s a pretty good deal for the United States. That’s the immigration story we need to be telling.”

Let’s parse that answer. The Asian American Yang established that highly educated immigrants offer a better narrative than those with fewer credentials. “We can’t always be focusing on some of the — the — the distressed stories,” Yang continued.

(To be clear, immigrants who risk their lives escaping various perils in their home countries to seek opportunity here embody exactly what the American Dream is all about.)

Related: A school administrator tries to shame poverty away

Yang went on to say that the immigrants he referred to as “distressed” are being scapegoated for downswings in the economy that they didn’t create. However, his comments still contributed to a narrative that certain immigrants are of lesser value. Likewise, former Vice President Joe Biden added, “And by the way, anybody that crosses the stage with a — with a — with a Ph.D., you should get a green card for seven years. We should keep them here,” meaning that people with doctoral degrees should be given more opportunities to stay in the country.

Suggesting that low-skilled labor doesn’t contribute as much to American society as workers with degrees misunderstands the range of skills required to keep the economy running — and it ignores the classism entrenched in policies that privilege the wealthy.

Nate Storring of Project for Public Spaces, an urban planning nonprofit, tweeted, “This is one of my pet peeves about the way economists define human capital. Degrees are a classist, inaccurate measure of people’s knowledge, skills, and experience. I wonder if it often yields a false positive in studies because it’s a pretty good proxy measure for privilege.”

When it comes to immigrants, the classist assumption that highly educated immigrants should have greater access to citizenship is rooted in a hierarchy of human values based on race. Brown people to our south are valued less than our more educated white neighbors to the north or from Western Europe. And certain kinds of brown people are valued more than others, with those the majority perceive as social relatives coming out on top. This brand of racism, heavily seasoned with classism, contributes to insidious rhetoric against brown and black people.

For example, Amy Wax, a tenured law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that U.S. immigration policy should allow greater access for citizens of certain European countries because of our supposedly stronger cultural ties. “Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites,” Wax reportedly stated on a panel at the National Conservatism Conference in July. (Similar comments in recent years resulted in her being censured by the university.) Her remarks also had an ugly echo with the events in the border city of El Paso last weekend, when an anti-immigrant screed was posted online just minutes before a white man shot dead 20 people in a local Walmart and injured many more.

Related: We should all ‘go back’ — to the American founding ideal of shared struggle, despite our differences

Immigrants in the U.S. are generally as educated as U.S.-born residents. Thirty percent of U.S. immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 31.6 percent of the U.S.-born population, according to a 2018 report by the nonprofit Pew Research Center. However, education levels vary by country of origin. Foreign-born immigrants from South and East Asia and from the Middle East in 2016 posted the highest share of college degree holders at 52.1 percent and 46.6 percent respectively. Immigrants from Mexico and Central America posted the lowest shares at 6.2 and 9.2 percent.

Measuring an immigrant’s added value to our country based on educational attainment is an ugly and misleading proxy for a person’s usefulness. It says more about the character of the person doing the measuring than the immigrant’s potential.

The United States must move away from a hierarchy of value based on race and class that has kept us from realizing the ideals inscribed on many of the country’s documents and symbols such as the Statue of Liberty.

Nineteenth-century poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem inscribed over the entrance to Lady Liberty, saw in the torch-bearing “Mother of Exiles” a rejection of elitism. “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” she wrote. America was for everyone, including the “homeless, tempest-tost.” This, then, is our American Dream — to not seek out that pomp, but rather, to open ourselves to the power of human potential.

This story about immigrants was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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