She's fair-skinned, blonde and speaks English with a solid Boston accent. But Diane Portnoy argues she's no different from the Latino immigrants — documented and undocumented — who have become the center of a firestorm of debate in state legislatures across the country in recent years.
The daughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors, Portnoy, 63, came to the United States as a 3-year-old. She grew up in a largely immigrant community in Malden, Mass., where the people spoke Polish and ate Polish food. She and her family struggled to learn English and make sense of their new country's culture.
"When I look at (current immigrants), I see my mother and father," she said. "They can be from Algeria or Mexico, but they are no different from my mother and my father and their friends."
The founder of a nationally recognized, award-winning adult education center in Malden, few would dispute Portnoy's contribution to her community. Since the Immigrant Learning Center opened in 1992, Portnoy has helped more than 7,000 immigrants from 109 countries learn English. But even though her students have gone on to find jobs, go to college and start businesses, Portnoy points out with sadness in her eyes, people do question their contributions to American society.
The immigration debate in the United States focuses disproportionately on illegal immigration, crime and the plight of poor immigrants, according to a number of media analyses conducted by think tanks and university researchers. Little attention is paid to the positive impact of immigration. In an attempt to change the conversation, Portnoy recently teamed with George Mason University to launch a research center that will study how immigrants affect their local economies.
"I love this country," Portnoy said. "This country has been incredibly good to my parents, to me and to my children. I honestly, deeply, passionately know that immigrants are good for the country."
As a new immigrant, Portnoy remembers her teacher picking her up, cuddling her and helping her make sense of her strange new world. By building the Immigrant Learning Center in 1992, she hoped to create a similarly welcoming place where immigrants could come to get a leg up on English. A soft-spoken, but direct woman with an elegant, no-nonsense air, Portnoy has spent the past couple of decades working for free to make that dream come true. Now the ILC, which has been recognized as a "gold standard" by the U.S. Department of Education, educates more than 900 immigrants per year. There is a waiting list 750 students long.
Portnoy was jarred when her students confided in her about the bullying and verbal abuse they encountered in the community, she said. People would shout derogatory things at them and tell them to "Go Home!"
The national conversation about immigration favors restricting legal immigration and cracking down on undocumented immigrants, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, who studies media coverage of immigration. In the media, there is more support for mass deportations than policies like the Dream Act, which would give undocumented immigrant children who go to college a pathway to citizenship.
"Generally speaking, the tone of media coverage — even mainstream sources — tends to emphasize the cost of immigration or the political controversy surrounding immigration," he said. "Negative stories tend to outweigh human-interest stories that might be more sympathetic to immigrants."
Undocumented immigrants represent less than a third of the nation's foreign-born population, but talk about illegal immigration dominates immigration coverage in America's newspapers, talk shows and television news stations, according to a Brookings Institute study. Other popular topics include criminal behavior by immigrants and incompetence by immigration officials.
Between 1980 and 2007, for example, 70 percent of Associated Press stories written about immigration focused on legality, according to the study. During the same time period, 86 percent of New York Times stories and 87 percent of "CBS Evening News" stories did the same.
Media chatter plays a significant role in shaping both public opinion and policy, Ramakrishnan said. In a recent study of states that have enacted hard-line immigration enforcement laws he found no evidence of the immigrant troubles frequently cited by proponents. There were no statistically significant changes in demographic shifts, crime or economic instability. Instead, his research suggests state-led crackdowns on illegal immigration are driven by political partisanship and party polarization.
Changing the conversation
Hoping to add another dimension to the immigration debate, Portnoy decided to start a public education program.
Portnoy started out small, adding a small public education arm to the ILC to analyze immigrant trends in Massachusetts.
What it found flew in the face of popular sentiments.
Economic worries have long played a major role in the immigration debate. Historical graphs of the unemployment rate and immigration attitudes are eerily similar. Since 1965, when the unemployment rate rose, so too did support for decreasing immigration, according to the Brookings Institute.
Right now, the economy and unemployment rank at the top of Americans' list of worries for the country. And, according to the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan public policy institute based in Washington, D.C., a majority of Americans see immigration as more of a problem than an opportunity. Close to 60 percent of Americans believe immigrants take jobs from native workers.
According to Portnoy and her team of researchers, though, immigrants are more likely than native citizens to start their own businesses. Five percent of naturalized citizens are self-employed compared to just 3.7 percent of native-born Americans. In Massachusetts, ILC researchers found more than a quarter of all biotech companies had at least one immigrant founder. In Boston, New York City and Philadelphia, immigrants started 40 percent of all transportation companies.
"That's miraculous," Portnoy said. "Immigrants aren't 40 percent of the population."
With a sizable grant in hand, Portnoy approached George Mason University with a plan to dig deeper. Last month, they launched the Institute for Immigration Research.
Using detailed Census data, the center plans to build a national map pinpointing self-employed immigrants, said James Witte, a George Mason University professor of sociology and director of the institute. They also hope to build a database of immigrant graduate students, then track a sample longitudinally to measure their economic impact.
"With all of the heated rhetoric about immigration these days, academically rigorous research results are needed," Witte said.
Portnoy, whose parents were both entrepreneurs, thinks she knows which direction the research might point. But, she's adamant about doing away with the rhetoric and letting the data do the talking.
"She's made it really clear the research we are going to do has to be independent," Witte said. "If we find out immigrants are bad for America, that's what we are going to tell her."