Immigration is driving Boston’s success in baseball and academia

The international stars in the Boston Red Sox and the city’s stellar universities highlight why Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric is so out of step with a ‘winning’ part of America, writes Jack Grove from Boston

November 7, 2018
Source: istock

Boston has been celebrating hard in the past week. On Wednesday, 31 October, an estimated 1 million baseball fans lined the city’s streets to welcome home their beloved Red Sox after winning the World Series.

Three days earlier, fans flooded the city’s central park, Boston Common, as its most iconic sports team completed a 4-1 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers, just hours after I touched down for my first visit to the US.

I don’t know much about baseball, so the tactics and subtleties of America’s national sport are lost on me, but watching the Red Sox players wave to the delirious fans during their parade on amphibious duck boats normally used for tours of its famous bay, one thing was clear: this victory wasn’t just the achievement of a bunch of all-American heroes.

Those Red Sox players bringing home the World Series trophy were a highly international group, with players hailing from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Aruba and even Taiwan (not known for its abundance of international sports stars).

There is also the team’s Puerto Rican manager, Alex Cora, who has steered the Red Sox to an unprecedented 116 victories in their run to the World Series trophy in his rookie season.

He is not the only one from outside the US’ traditional land borders, however, running an elite institution at the top of its game in the Boston area. Venezuelan-born electrical engineer Rafael Reif is president of the formidable Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joseph E. Aoun, a French-Lebanese educationalist, heads nearby Northeastern University – one of five Boston universities rated in the top 200 of Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

At both institutions, the academic staff is increasingly international, with more than 40 per cent of MIT’s faculty born outside the US. At the most historic environs of Harvard University – just two subway stops north-west– the ratio is somewhat similar, with more than 10,000 international staff and students on campus this year.

Pointing out that world-class universities draw scholars from across the world to its campuses may sound rather pat. For Boston – and the Cambridge municipality just across the Charles River – this international diversity of both baseball players and academics makes complete sense. From the Albanian taxi driver who picked me up from Boston Logan airport to my Korean Airbnb hosts in the Boston suburbs, and the countless foreign academics populating Boston’s 50+ higher education institutions, immigration is what makes Boston tick, and it always has. Starting with the arrival of the Puritans in the 17th century to waves of Irish, Italian and Chinese immigrants over the centuries, the city has thrived because of its diverse population.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to understand or appreciate the foundations of the Red Sox’s and the city’s success stories – most notably, Donald Trump. The unapologetic “nationalist” president has been ramping up the anti-immigration rhetoric to a pitch that has appalled even some of his staunchest defenders. His call to scrap birthright citizenship rights – the bedrock of US society since the Civil War – has outraged constitutionalists, while his railing at the “young, strong” men leading a refugee “caravan” has made his contempt for Hispanic immigrants harder than ever to deny.

Massachusetts is probably the US state that most contrasts with what Trump represents. Charlie Baker, the Republican governor who was just re-elected in the midterm gubernatorial race, has worked hard to distance himself from his leader’s inflammatory talk. His victory will continue a tradition of moderate Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, holding office here.

Baker, like so many other Bostonians, recognises just how much Boston has gained from attracting not just top academic talent from across the world, but hard-working blue-collar grafters who contribute to the fabric of the city – its “sanctuary” status for immigrants is under no threat – at state level, at least.

There was also a reminder last week of an inglorious part of Boston’s history. In a West Virginia penitentiary, former crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, whose Winter Hill Gang terrorised north Boston neighbourhoods in the 1970s and 1980s, was bludgeoned to death, apparently by another Massachusetts gangster.

It’s an era that Boston has put firmly in its past, with the rundown neighbourhoods once ruled by Bulger now home to thousands of families linked to the city’s thriving higher education sector, as well as those working in the biotech, computing and medical professions that have sprung from it. Welcoming those from overseas – be they Red Sox batters, MIT professors or Albanian cab drivers – seems, to an outsider at least, to be the crucial ingredient to Boston’s recent giddy successes.

Trump – whose only interest in Boston has been limited to his fixation with US senator Elizabeth Warren and, bizarrely, the pitcher rotation of the LA Dodgers – is sadly one of the few not paying attention.

Jack Grove is a reporter and deputy features editor for Times Higher Education.

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