Marcelo Suárez-Orozco and Carola Suárez-Orozco: Welcoming Migrants and Strengthening Los Angeles
You study migration all around the world. What are some of the factors that lead to the mass migration of families?
Love and work, war and terror, and increasingly, unchecked climate change and environmental issues. This is true today, this was true historically.
By love and work, I mean family reunification, folks moving to be together and united. And the need to provide for family members.
War has always been a factor in the mass displacements of people. We are now witnessing something that is a little different. Historically, it was a clash of super states that created the massive displacements of people. World War II generated the largest forced mass flows of human beings in recorded history. By the end of World War II, over 50 million people had been pushed out of their homes.
Likewise, the exit of the British from the Indian subcontinent, the end of the Raj, the partition of Pakistan and India [in 1947], and eventually the creation of Bangladesh created extraordinary movements of people.
What we see today is somewhat different. It is no longer the clash of powerful states. Rather, it is states with very little institutional capacity, states that are very weak, where terror, war, and unchecked climate change are creating the largest forced displacements of human beings.
And today, we are approaching double the number of the forced displacement during World War II. We now have approximately 80 million forcibly displaced human beings.
At this moment?
At this moment, as of today. And it’s very, very concentrated. It’s really less than a dozen conflicts that are either human-created, environmental-created, or a combination of the two.
Syria is exhibit A, it is the largest crisis in the world today. Syria is currently in the midst of the most severe drought, according to NASA data, in 800 years. So unchecked climate change led to the collapse of the farming and the agricultural basis that gave rise to civilization, as we now understand it, in that region of the world.
With the collapse of agriculture and unchecked climate change, you had movement from rural into cities, and a phenomenon, that came to be known as the Arab Spring in a way forecasted just the tragic, sinister synergies between war and terror, climate change, and the massive movements of people.
Central America is another example. If you take the countries that are expelling the largest numbers of people today, you have major climate induced and environmental malfeasance. Guatemala’s in the midst of the largest drought, El Salvador, likewise, and Honduras.
So, it is unsustainable consumption patterns, environmental (mal)practice (often driven by the voracious appetite to secure land for export commodities such as bananas, coffee, sugar are subject to global volatility), along with disruptive climate issues that are behind the toxic cocktail we are now witnessing..
Love, work, war and climate change are today the major drivers of mass migration the world over.
Marcelo explained mass migration around the world by pointing to interpersonal forces such as love as well as these huge structural forces that are reshaping opportunities for work, that are displacing people through war, through climate change. To what extent does that story help us understand why people are coming to Los Angeles?
In Central America, the current environmental conditions are pushing people out.
At the same time, there are longstanding relationships with people in Los Angeles–people who have been here for 30 years or so. The relationships that are already in place create a human infrastructure. There’s an uncle, an aunt, someone who came along earlier. People don’t come just to any place. It’s a bit like when earlier rains have laid in place a channel where later currents can more easily flow.
Similarly, earlier folks made that their ways here and others will come along the same channels facilitated by relationships. Often among Central Americans, for example, mothers have come ahead, and 10 or 15 years later their child will come and join them. So there are these extraordinary structural pushes out of birthplaces, but relationships will pull people, especially when situations are unsafe.
I just found this data point which I found very telling: 57.7% of children in Los Angeles County have one or more parents who are immigrants.
That sounds about right.
How unusual is that as we think about cities across the country and the cities across the globe?
It’s quite common in big cities. It would be true of New York City. It would be true of Miami. It’s also true of London, the Hague, Paris, many of the big cities in Europe, and in most of the post-industrial world.
In what sense does that shape the lived experience of young people in Los Angeles?
It shapes experience in oh so many ways. At the most basic level, you have parents who do not always know the rules of engagement of the new society, so the children need to navigate two different sets of rules. Children are very adept at doing that. It makes them more resilient, resourceful, savvy. So, I think it kind of contributes to children who are socially more creative in many ways.
But at the same time, it doesn’t play out so well in terms of the school system and standardized tests. And because learning a new language means that folks don’t always understand the nuances of double entendres on a multiple choice test, second language learners often pay a penalty and writing a well-crafted essay can be a challenge. And while second language learners do, with time, acquire English, they don’t always know how to play that particular academic writing game, especially if they’re not provided optimal learning experiences. And many immigrant children often don’t get to attend the best schools that our educational system has available.
In addition, children in immigrant families often don’t know how to navigate the college-going pathway. Meanwhile, more privileged parents are frantically trying to figure out how to game the college pathway system. You know, how we have witnessed the recent scandals- right? So even the advantaged are worried about how to play the game. Immigrant parents often don’t even know there is a game. Many immigrant parents actually trust the U.S. system to have the best educational pathways available to all. And so their children are at a disadvantage because they learn that there is a whole strategy to be had only in their senior year when the college counselor maybe tells them that they should have done some volunteer work and taken honors classes.
So I would say that for immigrant children, it’s a complicated game that in many ways they are disadvantaged to be playing, though arguably in in other ways they have clear social advantages we should be recognizing.
In what ways is our city enriched because of the presence of so many immigrant families?
I had my last class today–a class on immigrants and education, and 95% of the students were first or second generation kids. So almost all of my students in this class had an immigrant parent. They’re so hopeful about the possibilities for the future. They’re so socially responsible. They have such a sense of, “How do I contribute to society? How do I make a difference?” That’s exactly what our society needs. That makes for a better society if harnessed properly, right? If they are not stymied at every avenue.
I would add that immigrants are not from the other side of the moon. They’re like everybody else. A Harvard anthropologist once said: “All men are like all other men; in some ways they are like some other men, and in some ways they are like no other men.” I think that’s also true of immigrants. They are like all of us in very fundamental ways. What’s wired into the immigrant experience is a kind of a built-in metacognitive awareness that comes from having fundamentally different frames of reference, especially in the first generation. And that generates extraordinary advantages, they can just generate enormous good.
By metacognitive awareness, you mean …
Perspective. The ability to take perspective. There’s more than one way to approach things. That’s a cognitive advantage. And what we need is more ability to take perspective, to be creative, to think outside the box. Understanding there’s never only one way to do anything. It’s a way of approaching the world that comes from having more than one vantage point.
What should our city and county government do to ensure that immigrant youth and families experience Los Angeles as their home?
I think the most urgent need today is to lower the temperature. Immigration has unfortunately become hijacked by politicians and by others who are today speaking to the reptilian centers of the human brain. So first, lower the temperature.
In our city, immigration is our history. It’s a story of how Los Angeles came to be in its present form. We now have fairly good models that suggest that the first Americans came to the San Gabriel Mountains and environs, probably due to climate change factors. The original human settlements and caretakers were American Indians in settlements in what we now call Los Angeles that go back thousands of years.
So it’s our history. It’s our destiny. The only sector of the population that is growing is the immigrant origin sector. This is true in LA, and this is true in every major city in our country, and in nearly every high-income country in the world.
Take a city like Los Angeles in a state like California, which today ranks as the fifth largest economy in the world. Who will be the next generation of innovators, creators? Who would also do the less heroic, but nevertheless fundamental human labor? Who are going to be our nurses, our cops, teachers our fire fighters but the children of today’s refugees, the children of today’s immigrants – – both documented immigrants and undocumented immigrants.
As a nation, we have an advantage. Unlike other countries that are now facing tremendous issues with immigration—Germany is exhibit A—we have a history. The United States has struggled with this before. In the past, folks were very concerned that the Jews, that the Catholics, were never going to adapt to what was essentially framed and narrated as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. Carola and I lived in a city—Boston—where you still see the signs, “Irish need not apply.” And there were huge fears about the Italians, that the Italians will bring not only Catholicism, but also anarchism, their wars, their “atavistic conflicts” would come to our country.
Now if a UCLA professor a century ago would have said, “Okay folks, this will all work out, the Irish, the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, everybody’s going to do well and everybody’s going to adapt,” people would have rolled their eyes and said, “That’s never going to happen.”
So first, we need to normalize immigration. Then, we need to acknowledge the enormous resources that immigrants bring to our society. The contributions of immigrants to American society have been geologic in impact. Immigrants are more likely to win the Nobel Prize for the U.S. than the general population. But it also works in a systems way. Entire domains of our economy and society today came out of the heads of immigrants.
What would have happened if the first heart bypass operation, which has changed medical practice, what would have happened if that immigrant from Latin America had instead of coming to the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S., had gone to France? What would have happened if Mario Molina, winner of the Nobel Prize, who did the fundamental work on the ozone layer, had migrated from Mexico to Brazil instead of from Mexico into the United States?
So, yes, we need to acknowledge, change is always difficult. But we have an advantage over other countries like Germany. Germany doesn’t have that history of immigration. Germany has had a history of emigration. We’ve had a history we can learn from. And demonizing, dehumanizing immigrants hurts us all—the victims, first and foremost—but all of us become fundamentally debased when we indulge in the savagery of imputing the most horrific motives to folk that, like you and I, just want a shot at a better life. They want to love and they want to work.
This is the message of a famous refugee who had to leave his country and go to London. His name was Sigmund Freud. Let’s ask Dr. Freud: What’s the formula for a happy life? “Love and work.” That’s what immigrants want.
I agree 100 percent . We need to normalize migration. It’s part of the human experience. It’s part of the U.S. experience. And in addition to not demonizing immigrants, we need to recognize that so many of our families are complex. Many children who are U.S. citizens have undocumented family members. We have many more children who are living in mixed status families.
What we have to do in schools is to create absolutely safe zones where talking about immigration is not something that is taboo, where it is a matter of fact, where it is part of our existence, and where teachers learn how to manage these conversations.
One final question. In our first brief on parks, we shared images of beautiful parks around the world to give a sense of what is possible. With that in mind, is there a particular place anywhere in the world that you feel like offers a powerful, positive vision for how young people from other countries can be welcomed?
There’s no one place that does everything right. But Toronto is a place that stands out.
A few years ago, the Bertelsmann Foundation endeavored to find the best model practice for the transition of newcomers. Working with them, we found a lot of pockets of excellence in a number of locations, New York, the international networks schools, Sweden. But the Bertelsmann board gave the prize to the Toronto public schools. The quality of that program was its whole child, whole world, comprehensive and holistic approach. And every time I’m in Canada, what I sense is a feeling of “How are we going to make this work? We need you– that is what they say to their newcomers.” So the point of entry in the conversation with the other, it begins with a fundamental acknowledgement of the humanity of the other and what the “Other” brings to the country.
Can I tell you a story about a trip to Toronto? When you cross the border, you have to speak with the border agent, and those are, at best, cold, bureaucratic and sometimes unpleasant conversations. And so, I’m crossing into Canada because I’m going to give a talk, and the agent asked me, “Why are you coming?” I said, “Well, to give a talk.” “Well, what is it about?” And I, take a deep sigh and say, “It’s about immigration.” And he says, “What about immigration?” “Well, about children. “Oh, what about?” And I said, “Well, to help immigrant children best adapt.” And he says, “Do you know what I think about immigration and children?” So I brace myself and I respond “No, what do you think?” And he says, “I am the first adult in uniform that immigrant children see. I think it’s my job to make them feel as welcome as possible. So I always smile at them, welcome them, and make a point of being as kind to them as possible.”
This was, 10, 15 years ago. I thought, “What American border control agent would say that?” But that’s the point. How can we be welcoming? How can we make kids feel part of this society? Because that’s all they want. And ultimately, that approach works for everyone. It knits the whole society together.