Good news for America (in my opinion)

A large minority of Boston high school valedictorians are immigrants, and Steve Kelman has some thoughts on what that means for the nation.

Editor's note: This story was modified after its original publication to add a link.  

Immigration is, of course, a hot-button issue. But I think it would be hard for anyone but a person who is congenitally pessimistic, very hard-hearted or an anti-immigrant fanatic to fail to be moved by the set of names, pictures, birthplaces and post-high school destinations of the 41 Boston public high school valedictorians published in my hometown paper, The Boston Globe.

I saw this in the actual paper -- here is a link to the article and beautiful photos of the kids. I’ll bet that readers' hometown newspapers published something similar, so you can check to see if the results in your hometown mirror what I'm about to report.

Of the 41 valedictorians, 16 of these high-achieving high school students were not born in the United States. Three were born in Haiti, three in China, two in Vietnam, and others in slightly unlikely locations including Senegal, Albania, Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the non-black students born in the United States, judging from their names, the majority are Asians or Latinos, likely second-generation kids of immigrant parents.

For an American of my generation, who grew up before the huge wave of new immigration to the country unleashed by immigration law changes in the mid-1960s, the first thing that strikes me — and I see it in my classrooms among my master's students as well — is the profusion of what earlier would have been considered nontypical names. Yes, among the 41 there is a Henry, a Marissa, a Cathy, a Stacey, a Matthew and a Stephanie. But there are also an Auranous, a Semisha, a Xueling, a Shanam and a Panayiota.

Of course, the new America that we see among these 41 valedictorians is a bit jarring for the Americans who were here earlier. But these smart young kids are, frankly, the key to keeping America great in the decades to come. Think about all the high-tech companies in the United States founded by immigrants. Our attractiveness for plucky, go-getting people from outside the United States is one of the strongest sources of competitive advantage for us in the world economy.

Rather than fretting about U.S. jobs allegedly lost to immigrants, we should celebrate the enormous number of U.S. jobs that immigrant entrepreneurs create. Much of the world, frankly, would die for our attractiveness to talented people from outside our borders. Great nations typically decline after losing their drive and spark. Immigrants provide a constant renewal of that drive and spark to our society.

What are these valedictorians doing after high school? A few are going to various universities, including Harvard and Stanford. Many are going to local colleges, public and private. One is joining the Air Force. Another will be working for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The latter two are doubtless great catches for the government agencies they will serve.

My reaction to reading this story is that we are really lucky as a country to have a bunch of smart kids getting ready to contribute to our society, people who would not be here if we stopped immigration.

A person worried about whether these kids will assimilate into American society should think of my own case. I am the son (father's side) and grandson (mother's side) of immigrants.