I am probably the only immigrant willing to admit that we are to blame for America's high unemployment. But it is not undocumented immigrants like the ones whose children President Barack Obama said he's not going to deport who are taking your jobs away. Believe me, you don't want the jobs those immigrants do. It's legal immigrants like me you should be blaming for your plight.
Soon after I arrived from Kenya nearly 20 years ago, I began to work in the kind of jobs you'd expect a new immigrant to take. I scrubbed pots and pans, floors, and toilets at various restaurants. I stocked supermarket shelves. I guarded buildings and parking structures. And I scrubbed pots and pans, floors and toilets again.
Unsatisfied, I registered with a temporary staffing agency in California's Silicon Valley. Because I had no experience, the only jobs they could give me lasted between a couple of weeks and three months. But they all added up and gave me the experience I needed, and before long, I had a one-year contract assembling computer hard drives at IBM. My next job was at Applied Materials, one of the largest corporations in Silicon Valley.
Instead of bussing tables and driving hotel shuttles, dealing with irrational customers who thought that just because I spoke with an accent I was an idiot, I was driving forklifts, taking warehouse inventory, using computers, and attending daily meetings. I was getting paid overtime. I was living the American dream. But shortly after, a series of unfortunate things began to happen to make me question my understanding of what the American dream was.
It began with my first layoff from Applied Materials, after one year on the job. Fortunately, the economy picked up fast and they called me within a few months. During my second stint I climbed up the ranks to become a supervisor. Life was good. Seeing no need to go to college, I dropped out.
But then 9/11 happened.
Two months later, I was jobless again. A few months after, they called me back again, this time through the same temporary staffing agency that had opened my door to Silicon Valley. When in 2003 they told me that they'd be letting me go a third time, I knew there had to be a better way.
I could have applied for another warehouse job elsewhere like most of my American coworkers, but I was tired of being kicked around. Instead, I decided to take a hard look at my life. I began by asking myself why I had come to America. If all I ever wanted to be was an unskilled laborer, did I really have to leave Kenya?
I came to America to get something no one in my family had ever had: a college degree. Anything less would have been unacceptable. I returned to college, got my bachelor's degree, and later went to graduate school.
My story is not unique. That is the path many immigrants take. The ultimate goal of many of them -- even those who are undocumented -- is to earn a degree from an American college.
We refuse to accept that a life spent in an unskilled job is a lifetime in the American dream. To us, such jobs are launching pads to greater things -- transit vehicles to the American dream. Even when we come to America in our 30s and 40s, we are not afraid to enroll in college, or to acquire some form of formal training. Tell us that you won't recognize the degrees we acquired in our countries of origin and we'll start college afresh. Because of this spirit, we are lawyers, professors, doctors, scientists, inventors, nurses, teachers, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
You remind us every day that this is the land of opportunity. You wave your flag and tell us that this is the best country in the world.
It's about time you started believing in what you tell us about America. Instead of demonizing the defenseless guys breaking their back to get food to your supermarkets, demand that legal immigrants like me give you back your jobs. But to get them, you must work as hard as we have to qualify for these jobs.
It's a shame that many Americans think that what makes America great is the fact that one needs not have a college degree -- that the dream is to sit back and demand that some government bureaucrat create a job for you.
Talk about handouts!
We immigrants are often shocked when we learn that a majority of Americans have never been to a college classroom. That needs to change, if this is country is to remain great.
The choice is yours: You can work as hard as we immigrants have, and take maximum advantage of this country's abundant educational opportunity, or you can take the easy way out and continue to moan about undocumented immigrants. (They aren't going anywhere, so there is plenty of time for you to use them as scapegoats).
You can start by demanding that your government invest more in your children's education, and less in foreign wars -- many of which have created the unbearable conditions that have forced us to flee to America to take your jobs. Until then, we'll continue utilizing the wonderful educational institutions your hard-earned tax dollars have built and continue taking your jobs.
Writer and humorist Edwin Okong'o teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. He invites American children to his classroom so they may one day reclaim their jobs from immigrants.
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