Commentary

Immigration and the American dream

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A Houston pharmacist returned to India to select a bride from ten women chosen by his parents. He gathered friends to prepare ten questions he would ask of each prospect. One question was, “Why do you want to go to America?” Asked why that question, he answered: “Too many think that American streets are paved with gold and prosperity is easy.” When I asked his wife why she chose him, she responded: “I wanted a pharmacist because he would have time for the family.” There you have the two reasons most immigrants come to America: family values and the American dream.

Immigrants face difficult challenges in gaining upward mobility and a better life. They work very hard and make sacrifices for their children and, if possible, send funds to the extended family left behind. Such remittances from wealthy nations to support families and institutions in poorer nations are a major global transfer of funds.

The American dream seems to dim in the minds of many residents, but it still shines brightly for recent immigrants. In this new century, many Americans doubt that their children and grandchildren will have more success and security than their parents enjoy. Some young people fear downward mobility and have lost hope. The despair and resulting social problems contribute to current discontent.

Even so, immigrants flock toward the American dream, just as did most of our ancestors who arrived on boats from England, northern Europe, Scandinavia, and later from southern and eastern Europe. They came for the same reasons immigrants still come — for freedom to pursue the American dream and to provide for their families. Their children quickly moved up the ladder of American success to produce freedoms, democratic norms, security and prosperity that we enjoy and that are the envy of the rest of the world.

Research by Ran Abramitzky (Stanford) and Leah Boustan (Princeton) shows that children of immigrants still surpass their parents and move up the economic ladder. They are more likely to do so than children of similarly poor U.S.-born parents — now as in the past. The pattern holds no matter their country of origin.

My study of immigrants suggests reasons for that success. The most important is the emphasis on education for the children. One immigrant told me, “You have to understand that education is the universal passport.” Families sacrifice to get their children into good schools. They encourage, support and push them to excel. What some immigrants refer to as family values provides the context for that support. Because many had to work hard to gain access to the American dream, those who succeed have a strong work ethic. Many post-1965 immigrants were part of the brain drain — the brightest and best chosen for accomplishments medicine, sciences, computers, engineering and others needed to fuel the American economy. Many of their children have DNA (heredity) and family (environment) leading to academic, professional and personal success — so successful that some bridle when identified as the Model Minority. Undocumented children face many barriers to mobility, as do children of several others groups. Many fail to gain upward mobility, but examining possible reasons for failure would require another column.

Even so, the success of children of immigrants, including some who are undocumented, is on display this time of year when they receive honors from our best colleges and universities out of proportion to their numbers. Twenty-one of the past twenty-three winners of the National Spelling Bee are South Asians. Immigrant scientists, physicians or professors and their children appear in media to explain complicated developments affecting our communities. Declining birth rates make essential a regular inflow of immigrants whose drive, skills and hopes essential to our future research, development, manufacturing and distribution and enrich our culture.

A comprehensive national immigration policy is required. Failing that, we can make some progress locally by: welcoming our new neighbors; becoming acquainted and learning about them as persons not stereotypes; providing high quality education for all children appropriate to their abilities and goals; keeping families together when children are cared for and loved; generating good jobs and opportunities; supporting current immigrants who are motivated to pursue the American dream, thereby helping us all to flourish. The truth is that we will flourish together or wither and die divided.

 

Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.

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