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University Students Embrace Immigrant Culture — to America’s Benefit

In 15 years, Zoya Khan has taught more than 1,500 university students. “In my classes, I have first-generation students, honors students, single mothers,” she says. “It’s a diverse group, and I take pride in their achievements.” Khan, an associate professor of Spanish at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, has been able to inspire her students because of how America has inspired her. Coming to the United States from India to pursue her PhD, she says, “shaped me into the woman I am today. Had I just stayed in India, I wouldn’t have had the ideas that I’ve had, or be as independent as I am.”

There are some very good students, and we all lose if we don’t make it easier for them to study here.

Khan’s immigrant experience recently inspired an assignment that her students roundly praised as “the most meaningful”: Interviewing Hispanic immigrants in Mobile about what brought them to the country and how they’ve adapted to their new home. “They talked to doctors, housewives, other students,” says Khan. “And what everyone said is that they walked away with a better sense of not only the immigrant journey, but of their city and the people who live there.” The assignment paired well with a university speakers series in which students interview immigrant professors and professionals. “We had one with a Japanese music professor, one with a Spanish artist, another with a Vietnamese restaurant owner,” Khan says.

“Those forums have helped us come to the consensus that, yes, America gives a lot to immigrants. But immigrants also give so much back to the communities in which they live.”

In Alabama’s First Congressional District, in the state’s western Gulf Coast region that includes Mobile, immigrants are 25 percent more likely to be of working age than are U.S.-born residents; are 22 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs; and fill nearly one in ten jobs in agriculture and general services. Combined, immigrants in the district held $394 million in spending power and paid $123 million in taxes in 2014.

“Immigrants are responsible for all kinds of economic development,” says Khan. Not only do they pour money into the local economy through rent, groceries, or fuel, and more, but also “they contribute new ideas and different perspectives, which is what innovation is all about,” she says. “Without them there’s no way we’d be able to retain the edge that makes the United States an economic and social leader of change in the world.”

That edge first attracted Khan to the United States. Her father, who prized education, encouraged her to come here. And despite some initial culture shock, like Michigan’s frigid temperatures — she got her doctorate at the University of Michigan — she eventually grew to feel at home. She married an American man, and while accompanying him to the voting booth in 2012 decided to apply for citizenship.”Standing there with people from all over the world citing the oath of allegiance was a very meaningful day,” she says. Khan She is now one of 19.9 immigrants eligible to vote in the United States, a group that could have a particularly important role in coming elections.

Khan wants other immigrants to have the same opportunities to contribute to the country that she has had,— which is why she believes in immigration reform. The government should aim to attract diverse perspectives and harness the brainpower and skills that the United States needs, she says, and this starts with Dreamers, qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. “We want a pathway to citizenship for them,” says Khan. “There are some very good students, and we all lose if we don’t make it easier for them to study here.”

Khan would also like to see a pragmatic approach to integrating immigrants into American communities. “Sometimes we get hung up on where they are from, or what they wear, or how they look,” says Khan.

The proposed ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority nations, for example, encourages xenophobia and fear-mongering, she says, and believes is un-American. “That is not only going to keep people from coming here, but the immigrants who are already here are going to start thinking that they’ll never get anywhere because of who they are and they’ll leave,” says Khan, adding that it won’t be the immigrants who lose, —but America. “Immigrants enhance our culture through their food, their music, their art,” says Khan. “And if you don’t have an immigration policy that encourages that diversity, the melting pot that the United States is known for, and which makes us so exciting, is going to disappear completely.”

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