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Why Immigrants Bring Extra Human Potential

By Claudia Kolker

Why Immigrants Bring Extra Human Potential

Presdient Ronald Reagan greets Dr. George Morales in 1981. (White House)
Photo: President Ronald Reagan greets Dr. George Morales in 1981. (White House)

The photo instantly takes me back to the 1980s: boxy suits and lank haircuts, and most of all, the big-shouldered man with a broad smile. It’s a picture of President Ronald Reagan thanking the doctors who saved his life, sent to me by a relative. The man shaking Reagan’s hand in the photo was her father, George Morales — an immigrant from Mexico.

Thirty-seven years ago, Reagan became the first president to survive being shot while in office. He lived, it is believed, because of the expert care he received at George Washington University Hospital. Less widely known is that every doctor on Reagan’s anesthesia team was foreign-born.

As conflict over newcomers in our culture boils over, one argument contends that we simply can’t afford more immigrants who are poor, unskilled or even from certain countries. Only foreigners who show merit, this thinking goes, deserve entrance.

But what constitutes merit? To those making the argument, it’s simple: established credentials, tangible wealth, preferred nationalities. It’s a definition that would have excluded key doctors who saved Reagan’s life.

Back on that terrifying March day in 1981, Secret Service agents scrambled into scrubs to guard the surgery. Doctors and support staff raced Reagan’s gurney to the operating room. Then they placed him in the hands of a team of immigrants for anesthesia.

“One thing really struck me, looking at our team,” recalled Manfred Lichtmann, a staff anesthesiologist at the hospital. “Each of us had emigrated to the United States.”

Morales, who died in 2003, came from Mexico. Vickie Sidou, the anesthesiologist on call, emigrated from Greece. May Chin, then a resident at the hospital, was born in Malaysia. And Lichtmann had been a child refugee from Adolf Hitler’s Germany.

Lichtmann’s first years in the United States were disastrous. His parents fell ill, and he grew up in a children’s home. He didn't learn English until first grade, where his first word, because he heard it so much, was “S.O.B.”  

Finally, after medical school and service in Vietnam, Lichtmann joined George Washington University Hospital, where he met Morales.

“We kiddingly said that if President Reagan’s surgery failed to go well, we could be deported,” Lichtmann said. “We were proud to be immigrants and proud to be Americans.”

Like Lichtmann, Morales had fled his home country as a child refugee. Born in Nicaragua, he was shipped to Mexico — where he would become a citizen — at the age of 11. His father, a judge who once ruled against the dictator Anastasio Somoza, had sent the boy abroad to protect his life.

“George Morales was remarkable,” Lichtmann said. “Before the Republican nomination for president, I kept calling Sen. Lindsey Graham’s office but never got through. I wanted to tell him, you have a candidate who is calling Mexicans criminals — you need to know that a doctor from Mexico helped save Reagan’s life.”

No matter what one thinks about border walls, research shows that foreign-born people — rich and poor — have higher levels of one measurable merit that our economy can’t do without: potential. That is why it’s a fallacy to suppose we only have resources to absorb those who are already privileged. Immigrants themselves are the resource. And there is no sure way to predict who will skyrocket into the kind of success that changes American life.

The results of that potential are evident everywhere. You can see it in the 83 percent of winners in a youth science talent search who have foreign-born parents. You can also see it in the fact that immigrants file twice as many patents as native-born inventors, and also in the behaviors that help immigrants live an average of two years longer than people born here.

You can even quantify some of this potential. Research by Hajo Adam, a former business professor at Rice Business in Houston, suggests that living abroad markedly raises “self-concept clarity” — or confidence in one’s beliefs and goals. This quality is linked to an array of benefits, including more committed relationships, better health and even greater clarity about immediate career goals.

“It stands to reason that all the benefits from living abroad and the associated boost in self-concept clarity apply to most immigrants,” Adam said.

So it may not simply be chance that three of the doctors who treated Reagan were immigrants, equipped with some extra measure of purpose.

As the doctors at George Washington lifted the president to the operating table, Lichtmann recalled Reagan saying, “I presume you are all Republicans.” It was a quip, meant to reassure them. But it was also an acknowledgment that everyone there shared a clear, common purpose.

“We are all Republicans today, Mr. President,” the trauma chief answered.

I thought of that exchange as I studied the photo of Reagan and the doctors who saved him. Regardless of how each doctor in the photo got there, likely every one of them was the product of someone else’s will to get to this country and to flourish. Thank goodness, for all of us, America allowed that potential to grow.

Claudia Kolker is the associate director of intellectual capital at Rice Business and author of “The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers To America About Health, Happiness, and Hope."

Hajo Adam is a former assistant professor of management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

This article also appeared in the Washington Post as "The immigrant doctors who saved Ronald Reagan’s life"

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