Immigrants — they get the job done

By Craig Nudelman

Some of you may recognise the title of this article from Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton, a groundbreaking musical about an immigrant who became a US founding father.

However, while Hamilton references a time hundreds of years ago, these words still hold true today. Immigrants, and the children of immigrants generally tend to outperform their peers who were born in a country. Most notably, as I write this on 20 January 2021, Kamala Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, was inaugurated as Vice President of the United States of America. So why do immigrants and their children tend to succeed?

A person’s migration history makes a big difference. The children of parents who were born in a foreign country have a lot going against them. Nicholas Zill, writing for the Institute for Family Studies, investigated how these children perform in schools In the United States. One would think, he suggests, that academic success is proportionately representative to a student’s family’s income, stating that success should be based on a child’s, “wealth, social class, ability to go to schools with good teachers and abundant resources, and ‘white privilege’”. This would make it seem very unlikely that a child of an immigrant would be successful. This is because, he explains, the average family income for these students is lower than those of parents born in America. Also, many live in neighbourhoods that have high concentrations of childhood poverty. Yet, his research showed that many of these students are doing remarkably well in school; a higher proportion of students whose parents were not native to America performed marginally better. This despite the fact that these students’ parents were less likely to be contacted about learning or behavioural problems.

This example demonstrates the will to succeed. Immigrants are far more willing to sacrifice for their children. Michael Ungar, writing about resilience in Psychology Today, states that immigrants show grit and resourcefulness to gain the motivation to succeed. Parents are determined that their children gain an education to become upwardly mobile. With higher expectations for their children, they ensure that their children make a higher effort.

Lingxin Hao, who authored a large study on children of immigrants, writes that children of immigrants will focus more in school and therefore have a better relationship with their teachers. She states that, “teachers are somebody (…) they educate you, so you have to respect them”. Her study showed that the children who immigrate to the United States will outperform their native-born peers, as well as their children. Interestingly, the advantage disappears when it comes to the third generation.

The downside to this, however, is that the success of ‘the other’ can lead to locals becoming jealous, resulting in more pronouned anti-immigrant or xenophobic rhetoric. There is no greater example of this than here in South Africa. We have a large immigrant population which is entrepreneurial and has a lower level of risk aversion, according to a 2018 finding by the World Bank. The idea that immigrants and refugees are stealing locals’ jobs is unfounded, yet it still persists. In fact, the World Bank showed that between 1996-2011, immigrants in South Africa “had a positive impact on employment and wages for locals (…) with each immigrant worker generating approximately two jobs for citizens.”

The idea of immigrants “getting the job done” is apparent in the South African Jewish story, too. Our ancestors came here from Eastern Europe with nothing and made a living for themselves. They then gave an opportunity to their children to become professionals. It is our generation (or perhaps those a little younger than me) who need to buck the trend of the third generation losing their advantage in the world. Perhaps the COVID pandemic will be the catalyst that stirs the younger generation into showing show ingenuity, entrepreneurship, risk taking, and self-sacrifice.

On the American election
In my column published in November last year, I remarked how the 45th President of America, Donald Trump, was an example of a terrible manager. My column was not intended to diss the Orange Menace. Instead, I was giving examples of what a manager should not do with employees. However, I am happy to say that we no longer have to deal with that abomination of a leader.

His gross misconduct during office, culminating in a dramatic insurrection at the US Capitol, has made him the worst president the United States has ever seen. His violation of the Constitution, his selfish interests, and his ineptitude of dealing with the most devastating pandemic in history has reserved his spot at the very bottom of the ranking. America has, in the last three days (18-20 January 2021), lost more people to COVID than died in 9/11, the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan combined. Joe Biden now has the hard job of rebuilding on the damages of his predecessor — the economy, the virus, and a divided people.

Starting 2021
It’s a brand-new year, and bizrat Hashem may it be a year where we can all start living normally again. COVID-19 has struck the community hard. Many loved ones have unfortunately passed away; it has indeed left a void which cannot be replaced. I wish all of you who have experienced loss a long life and sincere condolences. Let’s hope that the tide turns soon and that 2021 is a year of growth and rejuvenation for us all.

Published in the print edition of the February 2021 issue. Download the February 2021 issue PDF here.

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