CHICAGO -- A few weeks ago, a senior at one of the local high schools asked me the question of the moment for DREAM Act-eligible students who can see that the proposed legislation won't pass anytime in the foreseeable future: What should I do? Scrape by and go to college here only to hit a brick wall once I'm looking for a real job, or just start working under the table now?
With kindness and sincerity, I told the Mexican native: Go south, young woman.
Young people here in the U.S. illegally hope for an opportunity to live the American dream but face a future of in-the-shadows misery and near-poverty. Rarely do I hear any of them wonder what opportunities an educated, bilingual go-getter might find back in their homeland.
Maybe they just don't understand how very different their situation is from when their parents came here seeking economic opportunity.
To start, education levels back in the 1990s -- when many parents of students now either graduating from high school or college first arrived -- were very low.
According to "The Geography of Immigrant Skills," a June 2011 report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, 37 percent of all working-age immigrants in 1990 had not completed high school. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that even though education levels have risen since 1985, in 2008 61.5 percent of Mexican immigrants still arrived to the U.S. not having completed high school. The figures were similar for Central American immigrants.
Though we can't assume that all of those students who could qualify for the DREAM Act are straight-A students or miracle college graduates, it's safe to say that the majority have completed high school and have some college experience, if not a completed degree. Plus, they're likely to have far superior language skills than those their parents arrived with.
According to language acquisition data released by the Pew Hispanic Center in early April, 38 percent of foreign-born or first-generation Hispanics say they can carry on a conversation in English and 37 percent say they can read a newspaper or book in English "very well" or "pretty well." Ninety-one percent also reported speaking and reading Spanish "very well" or "pretty well."
Also, although it's true that the recent global financial crisis has hurt struggling people in nearly every country in the world, Latin America has been at the leading edge of recovery. Just one example: Mexico.
In February, Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told a group of financiers and economists in Mexico, "It is noteworthy that Mexico has recovered more rapidly from the Great Recession and the global financial crisis. ... U.S. industrial production is still not back to pre-recession levels, but Mexico's industrial production passed its pre-recession peak at the end of 2010." He praised the Mexican government for its finances -- "Your government has implemented greater fiscal discipline than mine and has done so in a way that has not hampered economic recovery."
Mexico's middle class is now the majority and, as chronicled in a recent Washington Post article, not only are newly middle class crowds learning to golf, the ones with kids are pushing them to get them into English-language academies. Meanwhile, American corporations struggle to scale up their presence in the country to meet new consumer demand.
And though young illegal immigrants often say that the United States is the only country they've ever known, if they traveled "back" to the land of their parents, they'd be doing the same as untold numbers of people who grew up in the U.S. but decided to migrate to foreign countries with unfamiliar cultures and complex languages to find opportunity. Just ask all the college students, architects, English teachers and recent business grads currently flocking to China, India and Brazil.
The unsure senior's family and friends had already given her my same advice to "go back" and she's still mulling it over.
Having lived here most of their lives, young illegal immigrants should know that entrepreneurialism is a fundamental American characteristic. In the face of a political environment that isn't likely to offer opportunities to such young people anytime soon, they should know that although they can try to find a way to scrape by here, they could take their talent, pluck and dreams, and make it elsewhere just as well. Maybe even better.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.