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The journey towards a better life requires an educational passport

A few weeks ago, more than 800 new Americans took their oath of citizenship on the campus of North Harris College in l this stirring ceremony has been reenacted here some 15 times in the past three years swearing in 13,000 new citizens.

A typical group wild represent 60 countries of origin and 2,500 visitors, including the family members and guests, are invited to a reception we hoist the presiding federal judge. So why should a community college take the time, trouble and expense to host such an event? We do it to remind ourselves of two things.


First, we are all immigrants — in fact, refugees, in some sense. Literally, nearly one in 11 Americans living today were born to another nationality. And virtually all of us can trace our own lineage to an immigrant, whether recent or distant. But in a less literal sense, these naturalization ceremonies remind us that part of being an American, a part of being alive, is to he a pilgrim.


Each one of us is on a journey, each seeking a better life for our families. We all have some dream of being more, contributing more, accomplishing more. We cherish this country, whether our citizenship came to us as a birthright or we sought it out at great cost, because we believe it offers the opportunity for a successful journey to our dreams.


Second, these ceremonies remind us that we all need a passport. More than 30 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law sweeping legislation aimed at raising the quality of education for all. At the signing ceremony in the front yard of his own one-room schoolhouse right here in Texas, he declared, “Education is the only valid passport out of poverty.”


Those words ring as true today. In fact, in our complex society, education is the only valid passport to, any better condition in life. For the thousands of immigrants seeking a way into the economic mainstream of America, the community college has become a 20th-century Ellis Island.


From the education programs of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges — the most democratic of all institutions — the journeys of new Americans are launched. It is here — because of open admissions, affordability and easy access — where they can gain the language literacy, the job skills, the technology training, and the bridge to higher academic degrees that are hallmarks of mobility in our economy and our society. This, of course, is true for all Americans. More than ever before, our educational achievements are defining our position in life and our hopes for the future. The widening gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is most clearly marked by what they know, not from where they come.


Over the past decade or so. the standard of living for Americans with fewer than two years of college-level education or training has declined in real terms. For those with at least two years of education beyond high school, the standard of living has shown a healthy increase.


Education does confer a passport to a better life. Lack of it represents a major obstacle and may well make one an economic refugee of sorts. The President’s recent proposal for a higher-education tax credit — which would make two years of education beyond high school the national norm — addresses this reality most directly It deserves our support.


Demographers tell us that the United States in general. and Houston in particular, can expect the dramatic shifts in our population to continue and accelerate in the two decades to come. Immigrants will make up a very large segment of our population and workforce. Other kinds of refugees — economic and social — will also play a large role in the health of our community and economy. And what Houston is experiencing in this regard is just an early sign of what most of the rest of the country can expect.


The combination of these facts and our nation’s long tradition of embracing new immigrants makes the pending federal legislation on immigration “reform” so disturbing. As reported in the Houston Chronicle on June 29, both the House and Senate versions of this legislation would not only affect illegal immigrants, but would also deny a wide array of services to legal, productive, tax-paying immigrants.


The Senate version (S1664) is especially aggressive and shortsighted, denying even the most basic of educational and medical supports. Both the Head Start program and the most common forms of college aid — student loans — would be eliminated for legal immigrants. The House version (HR2202), though still aggressive, at least exempts these most basic programs and focuses more regulation on prospective rather than existing immigrant families.


The conference committee should be urged to lean to the less disruptive House version. But more importantly, our country must be urged to rethink its creeping xenophobia. Immigration is no threat. We need our legal immigrants as much as we need our naturalized citizens — indeed, there can be none of the latter without the former. We have always needed our new citizens They remind us of our common roots. They keep before us the promise this nation gave birth to so long ago — that the vision of liberty: is broad enough to embrace the greatest diversity of peoples with tolerant respect and equity: and draws strength from the great variety that has always marked the American experience.


We have an opportunity. If we sustain our commitment to education, especially to our community colleges, we can give a passport to success to tens of thousands of our fellow citizens who desire to be successful and to contribute to the community. We can equip our neighbors, new and old, for the journey which engages us all.


Thomas Jefferson understood it more than 200 years ago when he gave voice to the most eloquent of visions for America. The strength of our democracy, economy and society has always rested on an educated citizenry.


North Harris College — and community colleges throughout the nation — reaches out to immigrants and refugees, new and old, because America begins here.


COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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