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Dominican immigrants Roberto and Gisel Mercer hold their children while at a naturalization ceremony in Tampa, Fla. 

The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness and Hope

This week, the so-called Gang of Eight Democratic and Republican lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan plan for immigration reform. That news, plus a helpful assist from St. Patrick, got us thinking about immigrants and money.

It's difficult to be the newcomer in any setting. To adjust, you study your surroundings and learn ways to make yourself fit in and make others around you comfortable. So consider for a moment the immigrant experience and all the things newcomers to America must become aware of to survive in this country. But there are countless ways Americans can learn from immigrants as well. And it goes far beyond food and language. Different cultures carry customs from their homelands that, when observed and imitated, can help Americans strengthen their family life, their health and even their financial status.

What cultural wisdom found in immigrant communities can help improve our lives? For that, we turn to Claudia Kolker, author of "The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness and Hope" and a contributing editor at the Houston Chronicle.

"I think we're not considering [the benefits of immigration] as much as we could. Honestly, that in a lot of ways is human nature. I don't think we've ever considered it very much, but it is useful because there is so much evidence that on an entrepreneurial level, a business-formation level, a preventive health care level, that the immigrants who are here in this country already -- people we already here can track and know about -- have enriched us both metaphorically and literally. So it is a good time to look around us and see the ways that immigrants are succeeding in the things that we want," says Kolker.

Kolker says although the immigrant experience is typically viewed through an economic lens, their stories are not always ones of hardship. When Kolker looked at her immigrant friends, she realized that they had all sorts of achievements in terms of their children, families, savings, even their meal-time habits that she wanted. That's why she says this book is based, in part, on envy.

"In reporting [this book] I would ask foreign-born people, 'What's the smartest thing that people in your country do that we in the United States should emulate even as you hang onto them?' And the interesting thing is that everybody had a quick answer," says Kolker.

For example, in her book, Kolker discusses the Vietnamese money club, something similar to a rotating credit association or loan club. In the club, each person commits to giving a certain amount of money every month until 12 months have passed. Each month, one person walks home from the meeting with all that money and cash. But then that person has to keep paying back for the next 11 months until all of his or her friends in the group have gotten their pot of money. Kolker says it uses positive peer pressure and is very powerful. Even to forget your money one time, you'll destroy your credit with your best friends, she says.

About the author

David Lazarus is an American business and consumer columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness and Hope

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