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Becoming a Welcoming Society

Luisa del Rosal, Executive Director of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs and founding Executive Director of the Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center at SMU, discusses her journey in becoming a U.S. citizen. She also explains how universities, businesses, and nonprofits can help immigrants become part of the American mainstream.

Interview with Luisa del Rosal, Executive Director of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center February 23, 2021 //   15 minute read
Dallas Hall at SMU, Luisa del Rosal's alma mater

Luisa del Rosal came to SMU from Chihuahua, Mexico, as a 17-year-old student. Several degrees later, and now an American citizen, the Dallas resident is Executive Director of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs and founding Executive Director of the Mission Foods Texas-Mexico Center at Southern Methodist University. She also has served in various roles for SMU’s Cox School of Business, the Dallas Regional Chamber, and Education is Freedom. In 2020, the Republican sought but did not win a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

She spoke with Chris Walsh, Senior Manager for the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, about her journey in becoming an American citizen, the challenges immigrants face in becoming part of the American mainstream, and the role that universities, businesses, and nonprofits play in helping immigrants overcome those challenges. In her case, welcoming professors made it easier for a shy student to open up and begin her journey to citizenship and becoming a young American leader.

Let’s start with your own story. Tell us what your journey to American citizenship was like.

I always say that Mexico gave me roots and the United States gave me wings. I am an incredibly proud American and am excited about the wings America gave me, but my Mexican roots also are part of who I am.

I'm from Chihuahua, Mexico, a northern state along the Texas and New Mexico border. My parents are still there, and I came from a very traditional, very conservative Mexican family. We were all girls, all sisters. My dad and my grandpa always told us that we could be anything we wanted to be, even though being a woman in Mexico is so much harder than people sometimes realize.

It’s hard to explain how the glass ceilings haven't been broken there at the same levels as in the United States. Even if we have to break some barriers here, in the U.S., it's just much harder in Mexico. I was aware that I could do anything I wanted because my parents and my grandparents believed in me, but, structurally, it's just not as easy.

I was blessed to be able to come study in the United States. I was so shy and so sheltered. Honestly, I'd never had a sleepover in my life. Then, all of a sudden, here I was living with 200-plus strangers in a college dormitory at an American university when I was 17. That's why I talk about my wings. I don't think I could be who I am today if it weren't for the great blessing of coming to college in the United States. 

There also were all the Texans who gave me a chance. Because of them, I really felt I had to pay it forward, to do more for others, to talk about my American dream and feeling welcomed. 

I don't think I could be who I am today if it weren't for the great blessing of coming to college in the United States.

But it also is important for immigrants like me who love this country to remember where we came from. Then, we will never forget to fight for the things that are right here so that others can continue to live their American dream. For example, by following the rule of law and order, and protecting the fabric that you have become part of. 

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After I married my sweetheart, who is from El Paso, I went through the long process of becoming a permanent resident and then an American citizen. I pledged allegiance and became a full participant in this republic that gave me so much.

You spoke of your college experience. What can colleges do to help students who come from another nation integrate into the larger mainstream. What are the challenges?

Let me talk first about what it was like to come from another country as a very shy young person with a very weird name. And I say this not as an official voice of SMU, or in any official capacity with the university, but simply as Luisa. People would tell me I would not be taken seriously if I didn’t introduce myself with my last name. But how seriously can you be taken when people can't say your last name? People underestimate the power of language and names. That itself is a challenge to overcome. To this day, I'm just “Luisa” because del Rosal is too hard for some to say. 

What SMU did for me, though, was provide a welcoming faculty. I remember one of my classes on Latino politics. The professor asked us to come introduce ourselves and explain why we were taking the class. I set up an appointment, and when I arrived, he had already placed a map of Chihuahua on his desk. It meant so much to me as a young person that someone was trying to know more about me by understanding where I came from. 

People would tell me I would not be taken seriously if I didn’t introduce myself with my last name. But how seriously can you be taken when people can't say your last name? People underestimate the power of language and names. That itself is a challenge to overcome. 

Universities are uniquely equipped to help young people find their voice by understanding where they come from and the influences they bring. I am a passionate American, but it's still so exciting when people embrace — and want to learn about — where you're from and how that shaped you as a person. It is impactful for the person to be seen. Half the time, immigrants just want to be seen and have their experiences understood. 

In my case, I saw how this faculty member knew where I was from. That changed my experience. In that moment, I was seen and I opened up about where I came from and what informed my political views, which was important in a class like Latino politics. 

I would be remiss if I didn't say there were many other faculty members who took the time to reach out to me individually and engage with groups of students. That opened so many doors and helped me understand the American experience.

Faculty can do so much to help immigrant students through the process. It is immeasurable.

Thank you for discussing your own story and how different immigrants have their own journey. Thinking more broadly, what do you consider the best strategies to help immigrants and refugees integrate into life in a different country?

I am an advocate for learning more languages. Doors opened quickly for me because I could speak English fluently. This doesn't mean dismissing other languages. I still speak Spanish at home, but it's so important to integrate into the new language. Language programs can be so vital to the immigrant experience and to become part of the community. You can honor your roots while being part of this greater dynamic.

I still speak Spanish at home, but it's so important to integrate into the new language. Language programs can be so vital to the immigrant experience, to opening doors to become part of the community. You can honor your roots while being part of this greater dynamic.

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Networks are also key. Immigrants can be dismissed for not being able to do this or that because they lack networks. I had a built-in network because I came to an American institution where I met people who expanded my network. But we see in research that when immigrants arrive here in whatever way, they need broad, established networks to help them understand how to do simple things like rent homes and pay bills. 

We need to think about how we really become a welcoming society for people who want to follow our rules and be part of our community. Simple things, after all, get lost in translation. 

We see in research that when immigrants arrive here in whatever way, they need broad, established networks to help them understand how to do simple things like rent homes and pay bills. Simple things can get lost in translation.

When I worked for a college access program, we were always talking about these big ideas on how to make sure young people got to college. But sometimes, it was simple things that complicated the process. For example, one young person in this apprenticeship program didn’t have the appropriate shoes. And he didn't have the way to get to a store to buy them. It wasn't that he didn't have a will. He just didn't have a way. It took me going to buy him shoes. 

Sometimes we need to start smaller when we talk about immigration reform and think about how we help immigrants find homes, get a job, and establish supportive networks. How do we establish them in networks of support, whether through churches, community centers, and great nonprofits? We have to think about the right policies, but we also need the right processes.

Let’s move to the next step. What is the best way is to learn citizenship? And who helps make that happen?

That’s not only an issue I wonder about with immigrants. I wonder how all of us can learn about civics and ethics. Many Americans don't understand how processes work.

I was prepared for the 100-plus important historical questions on the citizenship test probably because I was a political science major. But the test really never talked about basic civics.

Nonprofits, and the public and private spheres, can play a big role here. They can help immigrants going through the citizenship process understand not only our values, but also how our system works. We should prioritize things like civics, ethics education, and financial literacy when we are prioritizing integration. We need to push these as something that we value and talk about them before immigrants take the citizenship test and go through the ceremony.

You worked at the Dallas Regional Chamber. What have you learned about businesses and the private sector being a gateway into the American mainstream for immigrants? How is business helpful for integration and for becoming better citizens?

The role of business is critical because the private sector offers the kind of networks I am talking about. Businesses look to employ immigrants who need certain skillsets that might have not been found at home. And entrepreneurial immigrants who have started their own businesses have learned a lot about how the system works, such as forming a relationship with a bank. 

The role of business is critical because the private sector offers the kind of networks I am talking about.

Chambers of Commerce can help by showing immigrants the best ways to start a new business, or help businesses understand how to have a diverse workforce. They can show how immigrants can do well through business and become integrated into the greater community.

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Thinking about the nation, how do democratic societies with diverse populations create a common narrative?

I have thought about this even more after the horrors of January 6, when rioters stormed the Capitol over the results of the presidential election. Friends and I were talking about the disgrace of that day, and one of them said, "We'll come together. We can do this." 

I thought then that we can build a collective society even in a diverse nation.

We can be very rugged and individualistic, especially here in Texas. But I have always found in America this sense that “out of many, one.” We need to nurture this belief through civics education and ethics education, but this is still American exceptionalism, which I believe in. Regardless of our differences, we still can come together and say, "I want to do better not just for myself, but for the people around me.” We can build this collective good.

As long as we can continue to put a priority on service, that can bring us together. Whether it's running for office, working for a nonprofit, coming up with a vaccine, or teaching in a classroom, as long as we're giving to each other we can come together and remain exceptional.

How do you create the conditions within a democratic society to nurture an attitude of service, as well as creating a welcoming society?

One of the keys is to let people be seen. We need to hear and respect others. Is listening or being respectful a core virtue of those we want to serve the public, the teachers in front of our kids, or just somebody at the grocery store?

We all want the microphone today in the United States, but we're not willing to listen to the person with another microphone. It's just who can shout louder. 

This goes back to education and teaching civics, ethics, and values. If they are not taught at home, there's no reason why we wouldn't reinforce them in our classrooms. It's just respect, listening to each other. 

And we need to teach our kids how to take information, think through it, and form their own opinion. And when they form their opinion, they need to know how to share it respectfully.

I remember once back in college during a class discussion about a controversial topic between Texas and Mexico. The discussion was animated, but it was a good one that was well led by our faculty member. Now, many years later as an adult, I think about how the professor led that discussion. Are there valid points? What are the arguments? It was always respectful.

Our problems aren’t always new. We just haven’t solved them. And we need to have good conversations about them.