Immigrants and the American Dream

We Americans like to talk about American values and the American dream. But I really wonder what dream they are talking about. There is nothing new about anti-immigrant agitation, usually invoking the danger of a particular group of immigrants because they don't fit into the American mold. But the country has been fortunate throughout its history that the resistance to this agitation triumphed in the past and has limited the success of the exclusionists more recently.

A part of the rhetoric of the current anti immigrant warriors is that the admission of immigrants threatens the American dream.  But exactly what is the American dream?  Both our the political leaders and their followers seem a little confused about it.  Barack Obama, in touting his national health care plan, said that it is a part of the American dream that “when we get sick we will get well.”  That would seem to be a universal dream, and most of the time it comes true, as we know from experience.  We also know that it will not always come true.  Eternal life is the busines of religion not of the doctors.  But having someone else pay the doctor is not a part of the American dream.

The American dream that drew the original colonists and has drawn every wave of immigrants throughout American history is the dream of freedom, first of all.  The dream of having freedom of, or from, religion.  The dream of not being taxed to support an established church to which you do not belong.  The dream of finding work, working hard and advancing yourself economically, and having your children start with advanges you did not have so that your children can begin their economic life at a higher level than you did.  It is the dream of a republic where the citizens ultimately make the decisions, and do not simply receive orders from above.

But just as these were the dreams that drew people to American in colonial days and during every wave of immigration throughout our history is that when the dream began to be realized, a different dream began to appear.  The colonists who cam seeking religious freedom saw no reason not to prevent other religions from being practiced.  The Pilgrims outlawed all churches except their own.  The more tolerant Carolinians welcomed Jewish immigrants and had no established church, but outlawed Catholics.  Virginia established the Church of England and used tax monies to pay the salaries of the Anglican ministers.  Maryland was open to all Christians and Pennsylvania to all who believed in God.  It was the American Revolution and the Constitution which gave real impetus to the idea of a society which in which the people were religiously and economically free to pursue happiness in their own way. 

After the Revolution, Americans followed the American Dream and succeeded to a large extent.  Because there was a high demand for labor wages were for the most part relatively high in the United States, land was available for the establishment of farms and the American economy was prospering.  The people did work hard, they did advance their economic and social position and gave their children a better start in life than they had had themselves.  The success of the American experiment in political, social and economic freedom brought immigrants who wanted to share in it.

For the Americans who achieved the American dream, the dream became less important.  Once a measure of wealth was achieved, the need for hard work and advancement was less important, and conspicuous consumption and a desire for less taxing work became more important.  For the next generation, which was, as the dream suggested, starting on a higher level, the desire was for immediate attainment of the more leisured and pleasant life their parents had earned without earning it themselves.  During the Nineteenth Century there was a saying in America: ” Shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations “.  The first generation worked hard and raised themselves from poverty.  The second lived on the interest from what the first generation had earned, and did  not work as hard.  The third generation consumed the principle and the family was starting again from the bottom.  This formulation is not, of course, completely true, But it was not and is not completely false.

A  part of the appeal of America was high wages.  These existed from the beginning because of a shortage of labor.  As native Americans moved up, they wanted ever higher wages, and would not take the jobs which paid less money for harder work.  These were the jobs the immigrants filled as they began their own pursuit of the American dream.  There was always complaint about the new immigrants.  They came from societies with different values.  They worshiped in strange churches.  They did't talk “like us” , they didn't dress “like us”, they tended to be “clannish”.

This last group of objections, by the way, was applied not just to immigrants but to native Americans who migrated from one state to another in search of more prosperity, more freedom, and a better life.  When the depression and the dust storms of the nineteent thirties drove people from Oklahoma to move to California, they were regarded as foreigners, and attempts were made to exclude them by law.  During World War II, there was a joke in Indiana: “Did you know there are only forty five states left in the United States””  “No.  What happened?” “Kentucky and Tennessee moved to Indiana, and Indiana went to Hell” .  The same reaction greeted the black descendents of the slaves when they migrated to the North in large numbers following World War I.  The earlier resdents of the area (including the descendents of the Irish, Jewish, German, Italian and Polish immigrants, now in the second and third generation were just as vociferous in their objection to the newcomers as earlier Americans had been in opposing their families immigration.  The resentment of newcomers is a given, no matter where they come from.

But the immigrants, in each of their succeeding waves, and the internal migrants of the past and of today are the ones who are keeping alive the American dream.  To leave your home and the society you are familiar with to travel to a strange place to do menial work for the chance to advance is not a drag on the society which receives you.  It was primarily the immigrants who built the canals and the railroads of the nineteenth century, it was primarily the immigrants who supplied the industrial work force which made America an economic giant.  it was largely the immigrants who settled the west.  America became great because of the American dream, and it has been the immigrants who have kept that dream and come here to fulfill it themselves, while each new native born generation moves farther away from it, and relies on credit cards and the government for support.  The immigrants, on the whole, do not come here to collect welfare or social security, and through their taxes they fund these programs for the natives.

The current version of the war against the immigrants, like all the previous manifestations, has an explanation of why this time is both the same and different.  It is the same since it claims that the immigrants deprive native Americans of high paying jobs.  The immigrants, however, expecially those who are the special objects of disdain, do not get the high paying jobs.  In this society and this economy, there are still low paying jobs, and today most Americans will not take them because they invelve more work, particularly physical labor, for less pay.  When the United States several years ago decided to apply the minimum wage to agricultural work, they discovered that there were not many native born Americans who were willing to take them.  That is why the immigration from Mexico continued.  The former President of Mexico, in an undiplomatic but true statement, observed that in the United States, the black citizens fill the jobs which the white citizens will not take, and the Mexicans fill the jobs that the black citizens will not take.   Not every job is a high paying job.  High pay brings high prices.  American citizens want high wages and low prices.  This depends on people willing to take low paying jobs as an entry to the American dream.  But businesses cannot provide low priced goods if every job is high paying.  Either workers willing to take the lower pay (this means either immigrants or migrants from poorer states) must come to the businesses or the businesses will move either to the poorer states in the United States or in American territories or to other countries.  Follow the history of the American textile industry, which moved from New England to the Carolinas in search of cheaper labor, and has now moved largely overseas.

The new element in the attack on the immigrants is that they are here illegally taking the high priced jobs.  But it is the legal immigrants in the “high demand professions” who are getting the high priced jobs, a lot of them paid for by taxes through, for example, medicare and medicade.  The illegal immigrants are illegals because we are trying once again to slam shut the door to opportunitu, the golden door to the American Dream.  A dream which today has been largely forgotten by the American citizens and is kept alive, now as in the past, by the immigrants who risk their lives and suffer disdain in their effort to achieve it.

NOTE: I am sure that some people will be annoyed that I talk about American History and do not mention the institution of slavery or the dispossession of the Native Americans.  I am awre of these things and I do not minimize their importance, but this article is about something else.

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    • Daniel says

      Legal immigrants are usually those who have enough money to get a visa. Illegal immigrants are those who don’t.

  1. says

    First of all, I am not an anti-immigrant warrior but I do believe that a soverign nation has a right to govern its borders and expect that their laws of entry into the country be respected. One does not have to be against immigration to be against immigrants illegally in the country. Furthermore, one does not have to be againt immigration to believe that even our legal immigration quota does not necessarily serve the U.S. From an environmental stance, the ever increasing rise in the U.S. population primarily due to immigration is not a good thing. Estimates from environmental scientist have suggested that a sustainable population for the U.S would be somewhere between 200 and 250 million people. Our planet already using the resources of 1 and 1/2 planet Earths.

    The current issue with immigration is nothing like the immigration from the late 1800’s / early 1900’s. There are no more places to settle and exploit without furthering our environmental demise.

    In addition, the policy of allowing possibly 12 to 15 million people a pathway to citizenship for breaking our laws of entry is not a sustainable policy. Barring further economic collapse of the U.S. economy, providing citizenship to those illegally in the country only furthers the hope of others south of the border that their time will come at some point as well. Reagan’s amnesty did not alleviate the immigration situation; only made it worse.

    It does not have to be a question of whether illegal immigrants are good people or hard working people; I fully believe that many of them are. One can understand why many would endure the hardship of crossing the border but appealing for illegal immigrants on an emotional level though is only part of what needs to be considered. As a country we must also use our minds as well as our hearts to deal with this pressing and complex issue.

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