Identity, integration and influence
Today, tens of millions of people are migrating from one country to another.
Migrating to stay alive, to have a roof, to get a job, to be with a family. People move.
We always have and we always will. Migrating is one of the most natural things we do.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, “In 2015, 244 million people, or 3.3 per cent of the world’s population, lived outside their country of origin.” Opponents to human nature seek to scare the public and set the terms of the debate around a shrinking pie rather than an expanding world. They are aided and abetted by politicians — with the exception of leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel — who prey on this fear to further divide.
Instead of explaining this natural act to the public, and creating laws and systems to facilitate and regulate migration, most of the world’s leaders are more focused on minimizing or blocking the movement of people. The Obama Administration’s callous efforts to halt the journey (or deport) women and children fleeing heinous Central American countries riddled with violence and crime is a particularly egregious example.
As a result of this failure, civil society leaders are left to explain to the public why people migrate. It is a massive task that requires the engagement of every corner of society. From business to faith to the impacted community, individuals and institutions outside of government are left to fill a vacuum.
These days, this vacuum is filled by a breed of politician (see Trump, Donald) or political party (Germany’s “Alternative for Germany”) who shrouds immigrant-bashing and race baiting in thinly veiled language of populism.
In the face of this challenge, civic leaders are stepping forward.
Over the last two weeks, I have touched down in Miami, FL, Charleston and Spartanburg, SC, Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium, and Marseille and Paris, France. Part of this was for a new project I am working on, part was as part of a small delegation meeting with immigrant community leaders in Europe.
After roughly 9,500 miles, I offer two conclusions and two questions.
First, Brussels pastries are far and away superior. The Cuban bakeries of Miami were early contenders. But, whether it was a chocolate croissant or a waffle, Brussels pastries ran away with victory.
Second, three factors are driving the immigration debate wherever I visited: Identity, integration and influence. More on that later.
In terms of questions, first, how do institutions help culture change within a nation’s values structure that, eventually, leads to systemic change? And, what does it take for politicians to prepare the public for the change that comes with migration?
The easy answer, of course, is, waffles. Lots of waffles.
The problem is, as my research found, Spartanburg, SC, doesn’t do waffles.
Besides being home to one of the world’s greatest burger joints, The Beacon (I had the grilled cheese), and Motte and Sons where they distill some fine moonshine (perfectly legal when you call it whiskey), Spartanburg has changed dramatically over the last 10–15 years.
During my visit, I sat with educators, pastors and parents. To a person, they spoke of this demographic change. As one person put it, “this all used to be a mill village, poor whites. Some people point their finger and say, ‘those people.’”
But they also spoke to Spartanburg’s future and what was being done to help the newly arrived immigrant and refugee community meet their potential. The work ranged from missions efforts by Southern Baptist churches to welcome refugees and expand ministries, to the Hispanic community organizing themselves to engage policymakers.
Born and raised in Spartanburg, Chuck Bagwell was principal of Acadia Elementary School for over 13 years. He is a big man with a gentle voice who put me at ease, but would surely have terrified me as a 3rd grader.
Chuck shared that, “as your community changes, those in the community have to change. If you want to help people, you have to learn where they are coming from. You can’t teach someone you don’t know.”
What led Chuck to this place? “More spiritual than anything else. I believe you are the church. I need to love and respect all kinds of people because that is what Jesus told us to do. No one is greater or less than anyone else.”
Chuck took the time to get to know his immigrant students, and their families. Their identity, their culture, and what they wanted for themselves and their community. As someone who identified, through and through, as South Carolinian, Chuck took a decidedly human approach to how he worked with his students and teachers.
And, whether it was Acadia Elementary or First Baptist Church, institutions were leading the way and creating a conversation. There was a willingness to help immigrants change in order to integrate into South Carolina; and, there was a willingness to help South Carolina change with their newest neighbors.
While policy change is still years away, the fact politicians like Governor Haley, Senator Graham or Congressman Mulvaney had, occasionally, worked to explain these changes to the broader public is a good sign. Put another way, organizations that worked with immigrants to shape a different cultural approach had a positive influence on the state’s political leadership. In a conservative state like South Carolina, this is significant.
A few days later, I was in Europe.
Attending the workshops were young people and adults, recent arrivals and longtime residents. Women defending the right to wear the hijab, comedians shining humor on the tension of the day, educators teaching migrant communities, organizers pushing back against racial profiling. The groups differed by geography, by experience, and, most importantly, by the environment they lived in.
Across these differences was a common belief that Belgium or France was their new home. And, across each group was a consistent question, “What will it take to be seen and accepted [as Belgian or French]?”
It was more than language. Everyone I met spoke French, and some also spoke Flemish. In Belgium, a large number had emigrated from Morocco, one or two generations ago. In France, the immigrant population was more recent and more diverse. In both cases, they yearned for cultural acceptance, the opportunity to reach their fullest potential and fully engage in civic society. They understood their communities needed to adapt to their new home; but were challenged by the lack of reciprocity or understanding by their new neighbors.
The contours of Europe’s migration debate followed the same lines I found in South Carolina: identity, integration and influence. We may be at different points in our growth as nations of immigrants (European nations couldn’t even dream of this label for themselves), but the challenges are the same.
In the U.S., ethnicity is often identity. It may not be applied equally, but in many parts of the country, one can speak to their Irish, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, etc, ethnicity with pride. Even if it leads to a domestic and an international answer, a perfectly normal question is, “Where are you from?”
In Belgium, Moroccans whose families had immigrated one or two generations ago recoiled at this question. They saw themselves as Belgian and couldn’t understand why someone would ask such a question. In France, the question triggered a palpable level of tension in the room.
What surfaced was a deeper unease about their place in society. They spoke the language, contributed to the economy, wanted to make their communities better, so why was their religion and culture a barrier to being accepted?
As one of the participants in Marseille put it, identity is not something openly discussed in conversations. Since the country frowns upon the idea of religious institutions playing a leadership role in culture change, and politicians are whipsawed by the political winds, there are few spaces for dialogue and conversation across communities. On the other hand, identity — European identity in particular — is aggressively reported and debated by a press corps that has little time or expertise to delve into the deeper issues at play.
Yet there is a desire among immigrant communities to have those conversations and develop a new identity in their new home.
Look, I’m not claiming identity is a rosy topic of conversation in the U.S. (the current GOP primary being a great example), but at least it is a topic of conversation. Whether in Belgium or France, identity is pushed below the surface of everyday life, but screamed from the rooftop of by the media and political establishment. All of which sets back efforts by immigrants to integrate into society.
As I saw in South Carolina, immigrants have gained greater access to the programs and services necessary to prosper. English classes are regularly oversubscribed, community college training courses enhance job skills and, nationally, millions of immigrants become U.S. citizens every year. While more investment is needed, supporting the integration process is an infrastructure cutting across non-governmental, private and public sectors.
The civic entrepreneurs we met with in Belgium and France are only now building the organizations necessary for the integration of newcomers. They are engaging education institutions, building new networks, and testing the bounds of what the market will bear.
But the market for the integration of immigrants into Europe has yet to develop. The European Union clearly does not have the necessary immigration system in place to manage the flow. Therefore, national governments are left to their own devices in terms of integrating immigrants at the local level. And, there doesn’t seem to be a culture of private philanthropy to support organizations.
Therefore, immigrant communities in Belgium and France are left to debate a confrontational press, navigate their own coalition politics, and rub scarce amounts of euros together in order to build organizations. In spite of this, the innovation is remarkable. Relationships across communities, use of comedy and drama as cultural connectors, and provision of services in creative settings are just a few examples.
But, ultimately, it is the political influence of New Americans, New Belgians or New French that builds economies and communities that help nations thrive.
Over the last 20 years, the U.S. immigrant community has prioritized citizenship and voting as the way to build political power. Tens of millions of dollars invested by both political parties has slowly, but surely, built an electoral juggernaut that is changing American politics. Quite frankly, while the question of status for the undocumented in the U.S. has yet to be resolved, for everyone else, status as a new U.S. citizen is an increasingly influential role in American politic.
The question of citizenship for immigrants in Belgium and France requires many more croissants of research. But the political sophistication of the groups was striking. They realized their identity as the new Europeans, and that their integration into society would culminate with political and systematic change. It was just going to take a while.
A larger infusion of private sector resources will certainly help the situation on both sides of the pond. Organizations with a solid infrastructure can test new approaches, scale successful programs and serve more people.
But all of this must ultimately lead to policy change. Which will be a function of political pressure and a willingness of political leaders to persuasively explain the opportunity to the broader public. What it takes for politicians to take this courageous step is difficult to determine these days. What I am seeing locally gives me hope, but it is going to be a long slog.
Speaking of hopeful, in addition to an extra five pounds of girth, I left my two weeks of travel remembering one exchange in particular.
A couple hours after I met with Bagwell, I ventured over to Acadia Elementary School to visit Norma Blanton who is an ESL teacher during the day and leads a wide range of after school programs. It was nearly 5pm, the parking lot was less than half full, but the cinder block lined white hallways were bustling with energy.
We popped into a new financial literacy class just as it was finishing for the day. Every woman who walked by knew Norma. More than one, she pointed out, had already “graduated” from a particular class but kept coming back in order to learn more and be a part of an extended family. And nearly every class they started was quickly oversubscribed. These Latino families saw Acadia Elementary as a place where they could be with their community and, at the same time, they and their children could learn how to integrate into American life.
We went back to Norma’s office to continue talking and sat down at the elementary-school-height table. Our conversation turned to the sobering tension in the city around immigrants and the resettlement of refugees, as well as the awful political rhetoric that dominated the national news.
I asked, “What gives you hope?”
Norma paused, looked down at the table, her eyes teared up, and she said, “They keep coming back.”
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