Immigration and The American Dream
Immigration and The American Dream
On a walk last week, I stopped in front of a large building construction site, where I noticed a group of hard-hatted workers who were taking a lunch break from their labors. They were obviously immigrant young (20’s-40’s) men, speaking animatedly with each other in a mixture of Spanish and accented English.
Their discussions were at times serious, and at other moments there were gales of laughter. I sensed camaraderie, bonhomie and community.
Despite their arduous labors, at that moment, they seemed content: They were now in America, healthy, employed, and especially experiencing safety, away from the deprivation, violence or other challenges they might have faced in their home countries.
For some reason I was riveted there, particularly interested in them, and then it hit me: I realized that this group of workmen I was observing in this New Year of 2023 could easily have been a similar group of immigrant workers who arrived in America about a century ago. And that immigrant group of strangers to this land could well have included my father, his brothers and their friends.
They too were new immigrants who had left behind deprivation and dangers, including hate and anti-Semitism. They also would have been speaking in their native languages (Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Yiddish, etc), and they too worked at first in construction or similar jobs which required strong, motivated workers.
These uncannily similar situations bracketed a remarkable century of achievement in America, in living standards, health, the arts and sciences and education, but those hundred years or so, sad to say, were also witness to virulent racism and terrible wars.
Young immigrant men and women from all over the world have for generations sought safety, and opportunity in America, the “shining beacon on the hill.” They came from different cultures, speaking foreign languages, living in modest accommodations, many with young children, and at first doing strenuous manual labor for relatively low wages.
They, like my father, could well have been thanking their lucky stars that they were now safe and no longer looking over their shoulders at pursuing dangers. They were at that point looking forward to making a better future life for themselves and especially for their children.
This is the story of “The American Dream,” is it not?
Yet we know that strong negative feelings opposed to new immigration are currently aroused in the United States, just as they were a century ago when my young father arrived on these shores. These same heated debates also occurred a hundred years ago between those who welcomed the arrival of emigres from abroad, and others who feared the presence of newcomers, who were dangerous or costly to them.
Some of those who resented their arrival were racists, others experienced xenophobia, or fear of strangers, while others attributed demeaning or dangerous traits to all new immigrants.
These same opposing and extreme sentiments are not a singular American phenomenon, as these same mixed feelings are seen in many other developed countries. Immigrants who are seeking a “better way of life” and a promising future for them and their loved ones, are sometimes welcomed, at other times reviled.
Nobody should pretend that making a new life here is immediately easy and rewarding. Picture yourself leaving the only country you’ve ever known as home, as difficult as your life may have been there, and then suddenly having to move to a new land, with very different languages, cultures and customs.
In spite of the real challenges, there are thousands of fulfilling stories of new immigrants to these shores over the years, many having arrived bedraggled and penniless in Ellis Island. Multitudes of these men and women had faced the challenges of poverty and xenophobia, but over the course of their own lives, or those of their children and grandchildren, they had been remarkably successful. By “successful,” I mean their lives turned out to be personally fulfilling, productive and rewarding. Equally important, these immigrants turned out to be generative and enriching to the Common Good, to our country as a whole.
These stories are indeed the epitome of fulfilment of “The American Dream.”
Most of us are descendants of immigrants, who might have arrived long ago or more recently. They may have been greeted in New York Harbor by the iconic Statue of Liberty, perhaps the most recognized and inspiring figure to new immigrants in the world, expressing the prototypic, “Welcome to America!”
And the moving words of poet Emma Lazarus are permanently displayed there for all to read, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…”
The United States especially has served as that beckoning beacon to immigrants, and if I may be so bold, this country has been greatly enriched by these bricklayers and carpenters, tailors and upholsterers, maids and seamstresses, cooks and servers, plumbers and electricians…who have spawned writers and physicians, lawyers and judges, scientists and architects, artists and musicians…If this is not the American Dream, what is?
There is a practical Economic Imperative to being pro-immigration: Economists and business leaders have been strongly advising that we need more workers, just as we always have, to fill the labor shortages we are facing now and in the future if we wish our nation’s economy to grow.
Groups of immigrant workers like the one I saw on my walk (and which my dad belonged to a century earlier) can be found throughout the United States. They will contribute to our current labor market and the growth of our economy, and, to be sure, their children and grandchildren will add to the greatness of this country.
But there is also a noble Moral Imperative for us to keep our doors open to those fleeing deprivation and dangers in their native lands. Welcoming them embodies the Zulu concept of “Umbutu,” meaning caring for our fellow human beings, and showing compassion and benevolence to others.
Even in these turbulent times, The American Dream lives on…