Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free... " (Lazarus) this excerpt from the inscription found on the statue of liberty represents the idealized version of American immigration. The reality of immigration for many foreign nationals, especially those from Mexico, is a completely different story. For most Mexican immigrants the road to the "American Dream" is an uphill climb, paved with economic, social, and linguistic (language) barriers.
Luis Rodriguez, the author of Always Running is no stranger to the reality of the American dream. His father, Poncho Rodriguez, immigrated to America from Mexico looking for a better life for his family. In America Poncho thought he could offer his children a life filled with dignity, hope, and promise. Instead, what Poncho found was a country filled with prejudice, economic ceilings (based on ethnicity), and poverty.
Since research to date indicates that the lack of education, social and economic mobility for new Mexican immigrants greatly affects their progress in American society. The government through school and other support agencies needs to plan programs and build infrastructures to facilitate growth among the Mexican immigrant community.
In the United States, the amount of poverty found in the Mexican immigrant community is staggering. Stephen A. Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies has this to say about the disproportionate rate of poverty among Mexican immigrants, "The poverty rate for Mexican immigrants is dramatically higher than that of natives or immigrants in general. In 1999, 25.8% of Mexican-born immigrants lived in poverty -- more than double the rate for natives." (Camarota Poverty) This breaks down to roughly every 1 in 4 immigrants from Mexico living in poverty. (Camarota Poverty) Luis Rodriguez and his family are a testament to this fact. Poncho, although educated, could not find a job suitable to take care of his family and they were forced to rely on help from relatives living in America to survive. (Rodriguez 32) Poncho's education was an exception to the rule. The lack of education among the Mexican immigrant community also contributes to the poor quality of life.
The type of job one holds is often linked to the amount of education a person has. (Camarota Labor) Many jobs today require specialized skills or a level of secular education that many immigrants are not able to achieve. Many Mexican immigrants live in poverty, and are forced to work to try and survive. This disqualifies them from the luxury of continuing or even completing their high school education. Additionally, Camarota writes that only 4.4% of Mexican immigrants have a college or graduate degree. (Camarota Labor) Not having access to an education means that many Mexicans are shut out of high paying jobs, (Middle to upper level management) forcing them to work in menial labor occupations or resort to a life of crime to earn better money. This continues the cycle of poverty. Luis Rodriguez was an eyewitness to this sad outcome many times in his own experience of growing up in the barrio.
Luis Rodriguez in his book Always Running provides the reader with several examples of the dismal economic outcome for many Mexican immigrant children if they do not obtain a good education. Because of the poverty found in the Mexican neighborhoods, many youths are forced to work to help provide food for their families. Luis mother was ready for him to start working at the age of nine. (Rodriguez 67) Many Mexican immigrants do not view education as a necessity, because survival is a more pressing issue. Many youths also drop out of school because they know that there are limited opportunities waiting for them upon graduation. Knowledge is power and without power a person feels like a victim. Rodriguez explains that in order to find power many poverty stricken youths turn to gangs to validate their sense of self. (Rodriguez 5, 76) Rodriguez shows that teen pregnancy, violence, an early death, are the things poverty and lack of education breeds. (Rodriguez 7) What about other immigrant groups to America? Do they face the same problems?
Several types of people from all ethnic backgrounds converge on America each year seeking a new way of life. For those in the Asian community the "America Dream" seems to be working. The Asian immigrant community generally places an extremely high value on obtaining an education, leading to greater economic success. This has led to the establishment of the Asian immigrant as the stereotypical "model minority" (Le) which other immigrant groups are expected to imitate. (Many in the Asian community also have trouble living up to this idealized version of the immigrant as well.) The economic statistics gathered from the last census shows the difference between the success of the Asian community and the Mexican immigrants. In 1999 the average income for those in the Asian community was 52,826 compared to 29,608 for Latino's. (Le) Even more surprisingly the number of Asians in mid-to-upper level management was around 32% while the stats for Mexican immigrants were a disheartening 5%. The reasons behind the difference in economic success between Asian immigrants and Mexican immigrants are too complex to discuss here, suffice it to say that education seems to be the key to "making it" financially in American society. What are the schools doing to ensure that the immigrant students in their care are able to reach their full potential?
The schools in America need to build a strong foundation for the future of our immigrant youth. This begins in elementary school where many immigrant children begin to fall through the cracks because of their inability to understand the language. Rodriguez experienced this first hand in his first year of attending public school. (Rodriguez 26) The teachers need to be trained to compensate for the language barrier. Hiring more teachers that do speak Spanish as a second (or first) language would help ease the transition for these students into America society. Having adequate supplies for learning is also a necessity. Rodriguez, although having attended school in the late 1960's, explains the conditions still found in many schools in the poverty stricken neighborhoods. "Most of the time there were no pencils or paper. Books were discards from other suburban schools where the well off students turned up." (Rodriguez 43) If the schools were able to provide better materials for learning then the interest in learning among the student body would rise. (If the students know that the government doesn't care about the quality of their education, they are going to care very little.) The dropout rate among Mexican immigrants also needs to be addressed by the school systems. Perhaps by offering subjects more closely in tune with the Mexican immigrant experience (i.e. Mexican history, literature, Mexican economic contributions to America etc.) more students would remain in school and reap the long-term benefits of an education. The burden for helping our Mexican immigrant youth does not rest solely with the schools. Other agencies need to help as well.
Rodriguez and his family were giving housing assistance by a "poverty agency." (Rodriguez 37) Obtaining a welfare payment provides necessary temporary relief for many families but it is not going to help anyone break the chains of poverty. Although the welfare reform laws of 1996 restricted the amount of payments available to the needy under the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) little has been done to replace the money with education. In order to increase earning power, government agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services need to invest more effort into creating and maintaining programs such as JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training) which help to the cycle of poverty by creating a skilled labor workforce. The DHHS also needs to implement a national program that targets those immigrant students which may be at risk of dropping out due to apathy or financial reasons. National organizations created by Latino-Americans such as CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute) and El Centro de La Raza could work in conjunction with National agencies acting as mentors for those at risk. Examples from those who have "been there" such as Luis Rodriguez also provide a credible resource for the DHHS to tap into to understand the plight of Latinos more thoroughly. National agencies need to set up offices within the community, and staff them with success stories from the community to show the youths that there are some who do make it out and are able to obtain a piece of the American pie without "selling out" or losing their culture.
In conclusion, the economic problems facing the Mexican immigrant community can be countered. The emphasis on education as a tool for advancement and financial success must become ingrained within the culture. Government agencies should take an interest in the fact that almost one fourth of all Mexican immigrants' lives in poverty (Camarota Labor) and take action. Schools should provide learning assistance for those who need it. Those who have…