Why the “Merit” Excuse Has no Merit

No, it’s not what you think. Although the Trump administration has very little credibility these days outside of their base, there is another reason why the merit excuse for Trump’s insulting comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa do not hold water. If they were truly discussing a merit-based immigration system then country of origin would not be a factor whatsoever. Yet we are supposed to believe this excuse because of the stark differences in economics and access to education between these countries (and one continent made up of 54 countries) that have been considered as “developing” for quite some time. Allow me to explain why that is, at worst, racist or, at best, racially prejudiced.

My parents immigrated to the United States as graduate students in the 1980’s. They had first left Ethiopia during its Marxist Revolution and my father went to Kenya as a refugee. My mother was attending university in Ethiopia at the time and was the first woman in her region to qualify for the then-famously challenging mathematics program of Addis Ababa University. Eventually, she followed my father south to finish her Bachelor’s and they were able to get married shortly after her arrival to Kenya. My father received a scholarship to attend graduate school in the United States and, since they were married, my mother was able to join him after she wrapped up her education in Kenya. They came here legally on student visas, my mother also enrolled in graduate school, and they fell in love with the promise of the United States of America. They knew that they would be able to create more opportunity here than back home, they appreciated the country’s diversity and the freedom to work hard and build a beautiful life for yourself that Marxism had taken away from their home country. They both became proud American citizens in the 1990’s and they had their children here. Today my parents both have graduate degrees, they are homeowners and have been faithful taxpayers, they contribute to charity are active in church ministry and have never violated any law or creed of America short of a speed limit. My father heads a department at an American university and my mother works in highly skilled technology positions as a contractor and they are as patriotic and loyal to this country as anyone.

Why do I share this personal story of how my brothers and I became first-generation Americans? Because it is living, breathing proof that a true merit-based system has nothing to do with an immigrant’s country of origin. By relating the two together, we are demeaning the countless people in underdeveloped countries who have to work ten times harder than people in the West to be able to attend university. We are feeding into the stereotype that people of color or people from impoverished countries are less intelligent than someone who was more fortunate or of a different racial demographic. When my parents entered this country, the statistics were far lower than they are today for African immigrants entering the United States with a college degree and yet both of my parents had one when they came. Despite the numbers being lower then, African immigrants were still among the most educated group of immigrants. They held the passports of a “sh-thole” country, but they still held up against a merit-based visa system being that they were educated, working, able bodied, and had many American pastors and professors who would have eagerly vouched for their character and ability to contribute to this country.

This is not a new concept, the stigma has always been there and it is not a stigma that has gone away. I, personally, grew up in Kenya from ages 6-15 and when I returned to the United States it did not matter that I had tested at a professional level for reading comprehension and writing skills. The administrators in Burbank High School still tried to put me in ESL (English, mind you, is my first language and they were speaking to me in person so they could clearly hear my American accent). Had it not been for my angel of a teacher fighting for me to be placed in her Honors class, the best that I would have gotten was remedial English. I worked on the high school’s newspaper as well and I recall a young woman who was born of Haitian immigrants and was eager to join the paper. She approached me as the editor-in-chief and began to ask me about the articles that she was supposed to write to qualify for the newspaper. I had no idea what she was speaking about, since our paper was considered a class so you just had to sign up as a sophomore or higher. She then informed me that the school’s administrator had told her that she was required to vie for the job by writing articles over the summer to be approved by our faculty supervisor. This was not true and was never suggested to any of the other students on the paper. What did this young lady and I have in common? We were the only two black students on the paper and were both first-generation Americans born of parents who immigrated from “sh-tholes”.

At the end of the day, if we are to give Trump and his cronies the benefit of the doubt, they are still working off of old information. The economic boom of Africa has increased access to education in huge numbers and as a result, between 2011 and 2015, forty-eight percent of immigrants had a college degree before entering the country in comparison to twenty-five years prior. In addition, when education access was at its lowest Africans were still highly likely to speak multiple languages which has been proven to increase learning ability in the brain overall. Logic would then follow that even if an immigrant from this region has no degree, they are probably much more capable of getting that education and applying it than Trump might think. He also is not checking his history books and realizing how much of modern math and science was born out of African kingdoms of old before colonization ever came about. To equate country of origin with a merit system based on education and ability to contribute to this country is not simply inaccurate or disappointing, it is racist or at best racially prejudiced and perpetuates the “less than” stereotype that has plagued Americans and immigrants of color, Caucasian immigrants from countries like Ireland and Italy, and the Jewish diaspora in this country for years. Albert Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.” Let’s judge these immigrants on their ability to swim among the sharks, instead.

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