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Immigrants and their children can save our democracy and revive our country — they always have

Immigrants and their children can save our democracy and revive our country — they always have
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With the November midterms quickly approaching, many Americans believe that our democracy is under siege. Yet it may just be the children of immigrants, those young people whose parents are so frequently maligned in public discourse and in the press, who can save it. It is these young bilingual citizens, the children of immigrant parents, who are one of democracy’s greatest social assets — future voters, civic organizers, and political leaders.

A half century ago, in the midst of the War on Poverty, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act into legislation. 1968 marked the federal government’s first attempt to address equity through language instruction in the schools, and bilingual education emerged as a weapon in the war on poverty, enabling bilingual, biliterate students, primarily the children of immigrant parents, to become contributing members of Johnson’s “Great Society.”

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Over the next 50 years, the federal government and the Supreme Court would enact policies and legislation around language, immigration, and education, all of which would determine the language of instruction, curricular access, and ultimately, the academic and civic potential of children of immigrants. Researchers like myself and others have shown that, in response to this investment in their educations, the children of immigrant parents have demonstratehigher than average participation in America’s democracy.

Research also suggests that bilinguals and children of immigrant parents show significantly higher levels of empathy than monolinguals. As colleagues and I have argued elsewhere, this empathy is a critical step toward civic investment. By definition, children of immigrants, who comprise one in four children in our public schools today, have grown up navigating two perspectives: that of their parents, and that of larger society, including their school and teachers. This ability to recognize others’ perspectives is essential to becoming an active, engaged citizen. A true democracy thrives when it embraces diverse perspectives and experiences.

American society, and the federal government in particular, has long championed education as the means by which to demonstrate merit. Beginning in the late 1920s, the Common School emerged to not only educate, but also Americanize immigrant children. In return, these immigrant children have provided significant socialentrepreneurial, and civic contributions to American democracy.

While their leadership and service has long been recognized at the local level, immigrants or their children comprised 12 percent of Congress in 2016. Leading up to the 2018 midterm races, at least one hundred foreign-born candidates are running for Congress, as well as for state and local offices, many of whom arrived in the U.S. as children. This is perhaps most notable in New York, where two competing candidates for the same office, Catalina Cruz and her opponent Ari Espinal, are immigrants themselves. Their presence marks a palpable shift in the face of political representation.

The now young adult children of immigrant parents who have come of age over the past two decades have learned lessons in democracy not only in their Civics classes, but also by observing how their parents have been treated by government policies and in the press. In 2006, children of undocumented immigrants organized en masse to protest the disparate treatment of their parents. The sheer force of the 2006 immigrant youth marches shook the nation and brought the language of DACA, DREAMER, and “immigrant potential” into popular discourse. Their organization, dedication, and potential would come together to inform the multiple iterations of the federal DREAM Act that Congress would propose between 2001 and 2011.

Although Congress never passed a federal DREAM Act, it did gain considerable support on both sides of the aisle, and the commitment of the children of immigrants to the democratic process had been recognized. Over the next decade, these immigrant young people would lead the charge, working tirelessly with allies and advocates to protect immigrants’ civil rights and broaden educational access, in the process strengthening the very foundation of American democracy.

Researchers have documented the organizational power of these young people, spurred to action by the corruption of democracy and unjust media portrayals that they witnessed across the nation. In his analysis of the DREAMer movement, urban sociologist Walter J. Nicholls has argued that the intellectual and civic leadership of young, tech-adept children of immigrant parents mobilized both immigrant and citizen communities around the stalled efforts of comprehensive immigration reform leading up to the 2006 marches. Following the 2008 presidential election, policymakers took note of the pivotal role of immigrant youth leadership in linking immigrant communities to mainstream political and civic discourse and mobilizing the youth vote. All of this demonstrates how vital children of immigrants have been to preserving and protecting the basic workings of American democracy, a not insignificant contribution these days.

Certainly, many will argue that unfettered immigration will damage the economic and social fabric of American society. That sentiment has certainly helped fuel Trump’s rise as well as his policies.

Nonetheless for nearly three centuries now, the United States has benefitted, if not prospered, from the cognitivecivic, and entrepreneurial contributions of immigrants and their children. If American democracy is to survive, it will require the civic and political resuscitation that the children of immigrants have to offer.

Rebecca Callahan is an associate professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.