The Immigrant Bounty

Last fall we had some leadership training offered in my division. It was aimed at first-level employees who were interested in promotion. I sat in on the first couple of hours to see how it was going.

The instructor started by asking each of us to name a person who influenced us as a leader or was a personal hero of ours. The hero could be anyone, family, historical, fictional. Many people named a teacher or a former boss. Many, a majority, mentioned one or both of their parents.

There were 30 people in the room, and about one-third were hispanic. At least seven of my hispanic workers mentioned parents as heroes or role models and said their parents had been immigrants. They talked about the lessons they had learned; that they could succeed, they could make a difference, that they should have goals and work hard to achieve those goals. One young woman in the training said that she was youngest of six, and all six of them had been to college.

I was looking around the room, doing the math. Many of my workers’ parents must be about my age, maybe a handful of years older. That means they might have come here in the late 1970s or early 80s. Maybe they came legally. Maybe some weren’t legal at first, and took advantage of the amnesty program in the ’80s.

I don’t know. I only conjecture. There are some things I do know, though, if I may generalize. I know they worked hard. I know this because I used to see many of them working, while I was on my way to school or work. I know they lived in cheap places, sometimes, with dirt floors, and had family picnics in public parks on Sundays because that was what they could afford to do. They drove old cars. They didn’t go to movies or the mall. They saved money and got better jobs and raised their children to see that.

Now those children work for me. They’re smart. They’re compassionate. They work hard. They show a welcoming face to people who come to my offices to get help—people who have lost their jobs, discovered they have a serious disease, assumed the care of a sick relative or family member, and don’t know where else to go.

One of my skills as a manager is that I recognize talent, so I’d already had my eye on a few of these seven. They won’t work for me forever. Some I will promote, of course. Other divisions in my agency will lure some away with more money. Some will leave to spend more time with their own children, especially when they’re young. When the economy gets better, some will leave to try their luck in the private sector. Maybe some will open their own business, maybe an internet company or a restaurant, or maybe invent the next luscious dessert or snack. Maybe some will go into politics.

At least one, in the next several years, will leave work to take care of a parent who can no longer live alone.

For now, though, I’ve got them. They are part of my wonderful staff who plow through an unbelievable volume of work each day, who protect the interests of citizens and taxpayers by making sure that people who are qualified for benefits get those benefits, who treat people with compassion, courtesy and respect even when those people are not returning the favor.

America has a well-established history of importing people to do our work and bad-mouthing them while they do it. I do understand that illegal immigration is a problem. In my opinion, a big part of that problem is that someone who is not here legally is vulnerable to exploitation.

When I look at the seven who spoke about being the children of immigrants, and I think of the flexibility, vibrancy and power they give to my workforce, though, I have one thing to say. And I want to say it to their immigrant parents. It’s just this: Thank you.

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