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Yvonne Abraham

In a Malden classroom, a lesson on immigration

President Trump backs a bill that would do away with a green card lottery.
President Trump backs a bill that would do away with a green card lottery. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

MALDEN — They have boundless faith in this country — even though this country is now led by people who have little faith in them.

For the students trying to master English in this classroom at The Immigrant Learning Center , America’s promise is real. They work night jobs as cleaners, cooks, and servers. Each day, they come here to work on their gerunds and pronouns. They write essays on their heroes and hopes. The share their setbacks and celebrate their victories.

“In my opinion, America is still a land of dreams,” says Asmaa, 29, who recently arrived from Morocco after winning the green card lottery. She’s alone here — “no family, no nothing.” Would some of her nine siblings like to join her one day? “Why not, of course, I wish!” she says.

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Rosena, from Haiti, was brought here six years ago by her brother, who arrived in 1996 with no English and no skills to speak of. He eventually became a computer repair technician, married, had four children, and now owns a restaurant and a convenience store nearby. Rosena works nights on an assembly line in a Chelsea factory.

“In America, life is better,” she says. “But there is not enough sleep.”

There is not enough sleep, either, for Zhen, from China, a hotel housekeeper who wants to learn enough English to be a medical translator. Not enough for Doriane, a former bank teller from Cameroon, who followed her husband here last year and now works at a Domino’s. Or for Ana, from El Salvador, who works in a kitchen and is grateful to be here because “at night you come home and you are safe, not scared.”

What is scary is how unlikely it is that the men and women in this Malden classroom would be allowed into this country if the immigration restrictions embraced by President Trump last week were the law. A bill he backs would do away with the green card lottery that brought Asmaa here. It would halve the number of refugees and other immigrants accepted each year. And it would change the immigration system from one based largely on family connections to one based on a narrow definition of “merit,” awarding points for more educated, highly skilled immigrants who are already fluent in English.

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The law would effectively favor more white immigrants and those from Western Europe, a shift sure to please the nativists in the president’s base. Still, the administration has tried to sell this naked demographic engineering as economic policy, arguing that excluding immigrants protects the jobs of American workers.

But many economists say drastically cutting immigration hurts the economy for everyone. And many business leaders, who complain of worker shortages — even in low-skilled jobs — oppose the restrictions.

“Overall, the picture is not one of immigrants taking jobs away from the native-born,” says Marilynn Johnson, a professor of history at Boston College and author of “The New Bostonians,” which chronicles how immigrants have changed the Boston area since the 1960s.

Immigrants account for 90 percent of the growth in the Boston labor force since 1980, she says, adding that there would have been almost no growth in the city’s economy without them. Johnson says that the sharp limits Trump wants would cause worker shortages in the region affecting fields like family and elder care, and food services.

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The legislation is “a big blame game,” she says, “and immigrants are the convenient scapegoats.”

The bill won’t pass, but even the floating of it does plenty of damage. It promotes the classist, mean-spirited view that low-skilled immigrants, and those who don’t speak English, are just takers, contributing little to our society. And it dismisses their potential: Every one of these English learners could get better skills and college educations, start businesses of their own, or raise a Steve Jobs.

It also makes a mockery of what this nation long stood for: refuge for newcomers, a chance at freedom, and better lives.

You need only visit this Malden classroom to see how much richer that makes us all.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.