Listen to “Catch a Wave.”

Several years ago, our local Chamber of Commerce brought in a renowned demographer to talk with a large group of business and civic leaders about the future impact of immigration (legal and illegal) on our community of 100,000 people. “Your community will soon experience the full force of a tsunami of brown, young, unemployed, fertile, sometimes violent, non-English speaking immigrants from the South. It is going to affect every institution and, as it has everywhere else, the economic resources of your city and region.”
I raised my hand and asked if he thought there were any opportunities or was he suggesting we all move to Switzerland and wait for the tidal wave to subside? I agree it was a snide question, but his bias upset me. He replied that his job was not spotting opportunities – just reporting facts.
Afterward, several of us huddled and decided we would fund a separate piece of research about the possible futures of the growing Hispanic population and look for economic opportunities in the wave moving in our direction. One of our group said, “If you don’t know how to swim you will run from a wave. If, on the other hand, you are a surfer you will get excited about a big one.” We wanted to be surfers. We were very specific about economic opportunities. We did not want to make it a social service project that focused on a needs assessment or what was lacking. We wanted to know where the business opportunities were.
One of the findings was a complete contradiction of the demographer’s report. Actually, several were, but I’ll save that for another time. Instead of the destructive wave he described, the research showed a high interest in education and business creation. After a nine-month study and three months of meetings with community leaders, the Hispanic Business Alliance was formed. The only requirement for membership was being the owner of the business. There were no memberships for Hispanics employed by someone else.
Many in the community responded as you might expect. “There are no Hispanic owned businesses. They are not entrepreneurs. They are just looking for jobs that we don’t want and taking away jobs from us.” As it turns out, hundreds of Hispanic business owners have joined the Hispanic Business Alliance. The demographer did us quite a favor.
Claudia Kolker does us another favor with her book “The Immigrant Advantage”. Now living in Houston and a professor at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, Kolker — who has reported for the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Boston Globe, and the Houston Chronicle — drew on her experiences as a world traveler to focus on what traditions first-generation immigrants bring to this country. In her book, she discusses several practices brought from wherever different people call “the old country.” These include a Vietnamese savings club called a hui; an age-old Mexican practice of caring for a mother for 40 days after giving birth called a cuarentena; and after-school study habits of Asian students. Some of the traditions she covers are mixtures of old and new, such as assisted marriage, which blends the family support found in the arranged marriage with Western individualism. Others are the result of increased competition, such as hagwons, Korean after-school programs whose success has helped give rise to the stereotype of Asian intellectual superiority. Still, others have arisen due to necessity, such as the Jamaican practice of intergenerational families living together. Kolker also looks at Mexican-American neighborliness and the Vietnamese custom of contracting out for com thang – a cheap but healthy home-cooked meal.
For me, most important is her broad look at the smart ideas that immigrants of all stripes bring to their adopted country and culture. There are many things they choose to leave behind because they are rotten practices but those they carry with them make life in America better for all of us. These customs and practices live on for generations even when dress, language, and other rituals are lost in future generations. However, even when those things fade away they leave behind contributions that enrich everyone.
The book is about good habits and traditions that last – family values, thrift, revering grandparents, and their wisdom. This is not about the politics of immigration but about the net benefits of importing the strengths and customs of other cultures. I don’t believe a nation is under a Biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger”, but to welcome the immigrant while assimilating their good values, practices, and beliefs that strengthen our own communities makes perfect sense to me.