A project of the Center for Community Change

a new way to think about immigrants and economy

 Catalino Tapia came to the United States at age 20 with $6 in his pocket. He worked hard, as a baker and a machine operator, and eventually started his own gardening business. He and his wife bought a home in Redwood City and raised their two sons, putting the eldest through college. Though he never studied beyond sixth grade, Tapia was so inspired to see his son, Noel, graduate from Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley that he decided to help other young Peninsula people make it to college. Now 63, the Mexican immigrant is giving back to the country he says has given him so much.

This story is familiar to so many of us. We see the families and workers that put everything on the line for their community and for eachother.

So, how did Mr. Tapia give back? What could a lowly gardener immigrant possibly give back to our country, beyond his labor and back?

A lot.

With the help of his son, Tapia organized his fellow gardeners in the area to start a non-profit that could give out scholarships to other young students looking to succeed.

This year, the foundation gave out nine scholarships of $1,500, almost double what it distributed in 2006, its first year.

That’s right. Those scholarships are going towards students will then continue to enrich our shared community. There is more than one way to understand how immigrants “give to our economy” . It’s not about straightforward dollars and cents- Mr. Tapia’s pure labor-, it’s also about the socio-economic infrastructure that immigrant families and communities bring to rural towns, burgeoning communities, and upwardly mobile youth that will one day shape this nation. It’s not simply about production, but it’s about the roots that immigrant communities lay down to support future production and vitality.

As I watch the dollar fall, fall, fall agains the euro and I see the economist taut the rise of China in the world economy, I wonder if Americans understand what made our economy rise to the top, and if they understand what is keeping us barely afloat today. It wasn’t simply “being great” or “working hard”. It was relationships, trust, ingenuity, and flexibilty (mixed with wars, unjust trade policies, etc.) that allowed stronger markets and stronger communities to soar here at home. Immigration has always been a major part of that growth. Either because we participated in the atrophy of other economies or governments that forced citizens to move, or because immigrants (documented and undocumented) have built lasting neighborhoods and communities that feed into the prosperity of our towns.

Bottomline: The value of immigrants, and ultimately the health of our economy, cannot be measured in production alone, but must also be measured by the socio-economic value of the strong communities and trusting relationships that humans can create.

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