The following is a contribution by outside blogger Gregory Sokoloff. Opinions expressed are solely those of Mr. Sokoloff.
The episode is still seared in my brain, even though it happened a couple of years ago. I was teaching my English as a second language class at a very prominent Washington-area language school, trying to explain sentence structure to about 20 new students, mostly from Central America.
I was cheerfully chirping about subjects, and verbs, and dependent clauses when, to my dismay, I began to realize the material was not sinking in. The relatively basic grammatical concepts were drawing blank stares as if they were sophisticated algorithms detailing an uncharted journey to Mars.
I tried again and again until — in an anti-climactic moment – a man in his 50s rose from his chair and uttered in Spanish with a hang-dog smile: “Teacher, I can’t read handwriting. Can you repeat it all in block letters?”
And now it sank in – but into my head: I was dealing with people maybe with some schooling, maybe none at all — but certainly an education that did not last long enough to get to the concept of subjects and verbs. In other words, I stared into the eyes of functional illiteracy.
Mind you, these were not illegal aliens. These were green card and U.S. citizenship holders – all studying on Pell Grants. A total of $111,000 of taxpayer money just in one classroom with — as it was now becoming increasingly clear — a very dicey chance of bringing a desired return.
Was this something to be surprised about? Hardly. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 51.7 percent of all foreign-born Hispanics in the United States have never finished high school. Among illegal immigrants, the percentage of school drop-outs equals 47.
And even these figure should be taken from a grain of salt because they are gleaned from various government surveys, most of which rely on oral attestation rather than documented proof. Herein lies maybe one of the most mind-boggling paradoxes to the 21st century: A high-tech powerhouse hungry for engineers, mathematicians and software writers is importing largely a half-literate proletarian mass.
There is no doubt that as far as immigration is concerned, we have simply and plainly lost our way. Every day, we are hearing – mainly from the left of our political spectrum – that the besieged opponents of some dictatorial regime need immigrant visas because they have been denied freedom of the speech, that children abandoned by illegal aliens in their native countries need to be reunited with their progenitors in no other place but U.S. soil, and that battered wives in some Macho Republic need protection from – who else? — U.S. law enforcement.
See the emphasis of all of this? They, they, they, and they… And it should be we, we, we and we…
We are bringing in thousands of computer engineers because we want to remain on the cutting edge on the technological revolution. We are giving green cards to qualified nurses because we need to take care of retiring baby-boomers. We are inviting in top-notch architects, physicists and biotechnologists because, as a society, we want to stay at the level of top scientific minds of the world. And we are denying visas to high-school drop-outs because — thank you very much — we have enough of our own.
It is time for our policymakers to realize and accept a simple fact: immigration, in its essence, is a self interested act designed to serve the interests of a host country, not the other way around.
That is what we have been doing, by the way, through most of our history. We imported farmers and ranchers when we had a lot of empty land in need of cultivation. We brought in raw labor when we started building railroads, mine for minerals and build factories.
But now we are in the information age that puts a premium on PhDs rather than a shovel, and our immigration philosophy remains mired in ideological concepts far removed from reality and common sense.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was right when he said, during a recent televised debate, that we should be stapling green cards to advanced degrees in science and technology being received by foreign students. I hope, if he is elected, he has the guts to act on this idea.