Integration Movement Needed During Divisive Election

Elections are inherently divisive, with deep contention portending for November, but ruptured personal relationships aren't the predestined outcome of differing political views. While the ballot box garners attention, groundwork for unification starts in our local communities. This concept was reinforced during an engaging recent discussion with a University of Illinois student working to create a campus integration movement.

Although our discussion focused initially on her pursuit of a leadership certificate at the Urbana-Champaign campus and my role as her coach in that endeavor, it was quickly clear that our pairing has a broader purpose. Whoever created the partnership saw past age and ethnicity differences to focus on what matters most -- common interests.

The increasing political segregation of our nation and risks associated with this division inspired my first two novels. Having identified potential solutions to these problems, I had thoughts to share. She also imparted her experiences and insights -- highlighting safety, inclusion and opportunity concerns based on obstacles in daily life, and compounded by a "Build the Wall" rally held by one candidate's supporters outside La Casa cultural house and other venues frequented by Latino/a students.

Several integration movement paths forward that don't need to wait for November are evident, including many highlighted in Brandeis University Professor Susan Eaton's book Integration Nation: Immigrants, Refugees, and America at its Best.

Successful integration projects Eaton highlighted include:

• community centers in Indiana and Pennsylvania (the latter inspired by Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon),
• a credit union in North Carolina,
• community gardens in Idaho,
• an interfaith initiative in Nebraska, and
• study circles in Maryland.

In each case, exposure across racial, ethnic and language boundaries is helping bridge gaps between long-term residents and immigrants from various parts of the globe.

Among the most effective of these efforts is dual-language immersion education. In Utah, dual-language programs highlighted by Eaton increased test scores across multiple subjects for previously single-language Spanish- and English-speaking children. I'm convinced we need to adopt these programs across multiple languages -- including Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian -- to remain competitive as the global economy expands faster than the United States.

While it's essential to successfully integrate with our neighbors, I understand those frustrated by an immigration system that encourages illegal entry while building bureaucratic blockades for people attempting legal admission. But my anger with our failed system focuses solely on elected officials, not people who view our unenforced border requirements the way I view unenforced speed limits on Interstate 88 outside of Chicago.

We need immigration reform, and soon. The United States should be a welcoming place for those immigrants we are economically able to invite in and help enter safely and legally. Clearly, with average incomes for the lowest-earning 60 percent of American households still below 2008 levels, we have an excess of labor supply that would be a consideration for the levels of immigrant entry in any well-functioning system. But taking frustration out on the vast numbers of hardworking, family-oriented immigrants who simply take advantage of the broken system our elected leaders have created and/or failed to administer won't create the better nation we all seek.

While we make our separate decisions on what type of immigration system we demand going forward, we can certainly acknowledge that beginning or expanding integration work inside our communities will create long-term benefits regardless of who wins in November.

It will be rewarding to support a very bright sophomore as she does her part through her integration project.

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