What Happens to an (American) Dream Deferred?
by Nathan Strauss on Friday, March 31st, 2017
By Nathan Strauss ’17
You never notice how much Americana subtly bleeds into your head until it’s too late. Signs of American pride were ingrained in my memory in the 10 years I spent in public school; from the recitation of the pledge of allegiance every morning (what could be a more potent symbol of nationalism than a forced declaration of fidelity every day?) to the various posters proclaiming American greatness, I was bombarded with Americana from a young age. I remember watching Schoolhouse Rock! “America Rock” at least once per year in Social Studies, hearing important messages about American democracy and, more importantly, the American Dream. In the song “The Great American Melting Pot,” one of the tunes from the Schoolhouse Rock! mixtape, the ideal of the American Dream is explained in dumbed-down tones, subtle enough to stick in my elementary-school mind.
“America was founded by the English,
But also by the Germans, Dutch, and French.
The principle still sticks;
Our heritage is mixed.
So any kid could be the president.”
I wanted to be president, wanted to continue my family’s journey, wanted to make my American Dream the biggest dream possible. I also know that I took multiculturalism for granted; I never questioned the idea that America was a nation of immigrants. However, as I grew older and the political climate grew nastier, I saw the visceral fear many of my fellow Americans had towards immigrants.
It confuses me to see people spew hatred on America’s immigrant population. As every American is one of three things: an immigrant, the direct descendent of an immigrant, or Native American, it is perplexing to constantly hear anti-immigrant rhetoric, whether it be from my peers or from the media. Given that only one percent of the population falls into the latter category, the question persists – why are so many of the other 99 percent against policies that make immigration easier? In exploring the economic and social realities of the American Dream, I came across a startling point that should have been glaringly obvious given our country’s history: the American Dream, and indeed America itself, depends on immigrants. America is, after all, an “idea,” an “experiment.” Immigration to this nation is one way of subscribing to America and American ideals. Should we encourage immigration, and thereby amnesty for the twelve million undocumented residents of America, on a nationwide scale? Where, exactly, does America benefit from immigrants? And most importantly, what is the relationship between immigration and the American Dream?
A malleable definition: the American Dream is the “belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society where upward mobility is possible for everyone.”
I come from a long line of Jews. My ancestors bounced around a lot, from Spain to the Czech Republic to Germany and Russia and Lithuania and…you get it. It seems too convenient for me to refer to myself as American – I think that I am the sum of my ancestor’s experiences. So did my ancestors live the American Dream when they came to this nation?
There’s an old joke – what’s the difference between a seamstress and a doctor? A generation!
Of the stereotypes that surround Jews today, the most prominent (or certainly the most factual) are those of traditional Jewish professions; Jews are thought to be doctors, lawyers, and academics. This is not mere happenstance; according to a 2007 thesis published by Allan Mazur of Syracuse University, Jewish immigrants “came [to America] without much money but with high rates of literacy and business experience, making them better equipped for life in a free, industrializing society than peasant farmers from Ireland and Italy.” Education has long been prized as a cultural value of Jews (who are known, literally, as People of the Book).
For 20th century Jews, jobs came in the form of seamsters and seamstresses; nowadays, the most common professions for Jews are bankers, physicians, academics, and lawyers.
Malcolm Gladwell explains this shift in his revolutionary book Outliers. Gladwell affirmed that yes, Jews found many jobs in the clothes manufacturing industry, but the descendents of these garment workers often did find jobs considered “skilled,” often just one generation after their parents worked such unskilled positions. Says Gladwell, “Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins.”
My family did indeed live a version of the American Dream. My ancestors all came to America in approximately a 35-year period, between around 1900 and 1935. They took strange routes, an unfortunate product of their Judaism, but all my first-generation relatives shared experiences: they worked in low-paying, menial jobs (scrap metal yard worker, waiter, nanny, construction, etc) and they lived in primarily Jewish communities (in Lowell, MA, New York City, and Brownsville, Brooklyn and Miami, oddly enough).
The second generation of Americans in my family began to climb up the socioeconomic ladder – they owned restaurants, became artists, half went to college, one ran the scrap mill that they once worked at. The third generation continued to climb the metaphorical ladder, with higher education becoming a right of passage. These became writers, doctors, interior designers, academics. They moved in other ways, as well. We went from the shtetl to the slums to suburban America in the span of three to four generations.
Indeed, my family could have been the poster child for Gladwell’s theory – we came with very little (family lore includes one American dollar sewn into the hem of my great-grandfather’s jacket when he smuggled himself into America on a cattle boat) but our cultural penchant for learning, yet we “pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps,” so to speak.
Some would view my family’s journey as the typical immigrant story – an immigrant comes to America, works hard, and creates a better life for his or her offspring – but my family’s journey was aided by a number of privileges. First of all, my ancestors were white. The privileges they had, both pre and post civil rights act, aided them greatly, especially compared to other immigrants of color. Secondly, some of my ancestors arrived with education; my great-grandfather on my paternal side was a dentist, and it only took a few years for him to start his own dentistry practice. This is not to say that they did not face prejudice – at the time of entry, Jews were not considered “white” per the law, and religious discrimination was commonplace, which led many Jews, including some of my predecessors to live together in low-income tenements. This also meant that my family did not assimilate. We maintained our culture, which is a definite positive, as my ancestors were raised with traditional “Jewish” values (like the value of education, as Gladwell explained), but it also damaged the reputation of Jews within American society as a whole.
Surprisingly, the American immigrant experience has not changed over the past 200 years, regardless of specific demographics. My family experienced much of the same stigma that immigrant families face today – xenophobia, threat of deportation, etc. The overwhelming public perception of immigration has not changed from the times of Benjamin Franklin, who feared that the large amount of German immigrants would erode the primarily British culture that was in place post-revolutionary war; indeed, every generation has had some class of immigrant to scapegoat: in the 19th century, it was the Irish and the Chinese, whereas in the early 20th century Italians and Eastern European immigrants, including many Jews, faced persecution and public skepticism. Nowadays, the focus of this xenophobia are Central American and South Asian immigrants, who face a paradoxical dichotomy – many people abhor their presence in America, yet those same people rely on immigrant labor. That paradox is nothing new, either – with every wave of immigration, the immigrants end up being forced into jobs deemed too unsightly for what then constituted the “native” population. It could be said that American xenophobia is at an all-time high; therefore, it is crucial that the importance of immigration and immigrants to America and the American dream is understood.
However successful Jews have been in the generations after the widespread Jewish migration to America, I can only imagine how much easier the transition would have been if my ancestors had not faced persecution from the minute they arrived. Persecution of immigrants was not unique to Jews; while Jews became Kikes, Italians became WOPs, etc. That trend has continued as well; just google “immigrant slurs” to see what I mean.
To further examine how immigration changed with time, I FaceTimed a friend of mine who asked me to remain anonymous. For the sake of anonymity, we will call him Joe. His voice is gravelly, with a slight southern twang. He sits in what looks to be a chair in his bedroom; I can see his bed in the background.
“My parents came to America when I was in the womb. There are laws that…you know…make it so that if a child is born in America, they are automatically a citizen. And really that’s what my parents wanted for me. They [my parents] had lived pretty hard lives in Colombia, and they flew to Miami, lived with cousins there, and eventually had me.”
“Are they legal citizens yet?” I asked, unsure of how to phrase the question. They are not yet, he explained, but they have sought legal counsel. Miami is a “sanctuary city,” which essentially means that the city will not go out of its way to “aid the feds in deporting people like my parents.”
“Why did they come to America?” I enquired.
“Hang on a sec, I’m gonna ask my mom,” Joe said, and he got up from his chair. In a few minutes, he had returned. “My mom said that America was the place to go for a better life. I know she grew up poor, in Colombia. Two of her brothers, my uncles, I guess, were killed in the war, and she was the youngest of six. She met my dad by chance – he was much more, you know, middle class, and he had relatives who had already left for America.” He looked up, thinking. “But they love it here. They’ve never gone back, either, not even for the funerals.”
Joe had a strong opinion on the legislative side of immigration, however. As he explained, his family doesn’t get many benefits from the government.
“My father was a surgeon in Colombia. He was the top of his class in high school, and ended up going on scholarship to Universidad Nacional de Colombia. And when he came to America, he had to work two jobs to save up for school, because he had to be recertified as an American doctor,” Joe explained with a sigh. My great-grandfather faced the same problem; a respected dentist in Germany, he had to learn English while working to save up for school.
The key point that Joe brought up which is often disregarded by the media is this: Immigrants do not come to steal American jobs. Immigrants come because America affords any person a chance at a better life. Immigrants, like Joe’s parents or my great-grandparents, risk everything – their careers, their relationships with their families, their personal safety – to come to America. When I spoke with Bill Hamel, a former teacher of mine, he agreed, but cautioned me about thinking that way.
“Americans love to drink their own Kool-Aid. We love to think we’re the best of the best. Now don’t get me wrong – we are certainly one of the countries with the most opportunity for the common person. But we do have a tendency to overlook our flaws,” said Mr. Hamel, as he went on to explain that the American Dream is “a deeply personalized journey.” Success is relative, but in America the potential for success is abundant.
Just as the American Dream is a personalized experience, so is immigration to America. Ms. Monique Kornfeld, an immigration lawyer based in Newton, was kind enough to take time out of her day to talk to me about the legal side of immigration. I asked her to walk me through a typical process of naturalization or immigration.
“I simply can’t do that for you,” Monique Kornfeld, Esq., tells me, as I sit at a table in the library. Our phone connection is solid, but her voice is still slightly distorted.
“Forgive me for the ignorant question, but why not?” I ask.
“There are too many ways to immigrate – too many paths – for me to walk you through the process. It depends on if you’re a skilled worker, or if you’re on any of so many different kinds of visas.”
A quick perusal of her website proved how complex the immigration process is. Temporary work visas, H-1B visas, EB-2 visas. Different procedures for every case. However, many of the options appeared to be work-based. As Ms. Kornfeld explained, one of the ways to become a legal resident of the United States is through proving that one is an expert in their field. If, say, you are a world-renowned professor, or scientist, or doctor, etc., there is a clearer path to citizenship than if you are what is referred to as an “unskilled worker” (i.e. if you work in agriculture, etc.). However, there are convoluted laws which American corporations have to adhere to that negatively affect the ability of skilled workers to become an employee:
“The Department of Labor (DOL) requires that the employer be willing to hire a U.S. worker if one is qualified, available, willing and able, although it will not force the employer to hire such worker if one is located.This requirement is intended to assure that a fair test of the labor market is conducted. Therefore, the employer may not discourage U.S. workers who apply for the job, or tell them that the job is already filled by the foreign national or that recruitment has been undertaken strictly for labor certification purposes. Nor may the foreign national participate in interviewing or evaluating U.S. job applicants, because that participation gives the appearance that a fair test of the labor market is not contemplated.”
Not only does this law restrict the ability of an immigrant to gain employment, but it also lowers the quality of work at many places of labor. As Ms. Kornfeld explains, the law “makes it so a lesser-skilled American [potential employee] gets employed, even if the potential foreign candidate is more skilled and better qualified” than the American. The drawbacks are clear: companies lose out on workers who, frankly, are better served for certain jobs, in exchange for more Americans being employed. While this does offer more jobs to American citizens, it also negates the potential work that could have been done by the more qualified immigrant worker. Ms. Kornfeld also predicted that these laws would be the ones to become more strict over the next four years.
The media and public perception of undocumented immigrants is a large reason why, as mentioned earlier, the immigrant experience has changed very little with time. It is a common perception that immigrants steal American jobs, and that they are responsible for any and all shortcomings of the American economy. That is the key point upon which Republican anti-immigrant legislation is based, yet it is a baseless argument: immigrants are not stealing American jobs. In fact, most immigrants take jobs American citizens do not deign to do. As Ms. Kornfeld said, “without the 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, our lawns would be ragged, our roofs would fall apart, our construction industry would tank – all of this because undocumented immigrants are often either unskilled or are forced into unskilled labor.” Furthermore, according to a report by the Cato Institute, an increase in immigration leads to economic growth:
“Research shows, for example, that as new immigrants come into the country, the number of jobs offshored in the manufacturing sector decreases. By ensuring that more manufacturing jobs stay in the United States, not only do native-born manufacturing workers benefit, but the demand for services that the manufacturing industry relies upon—such as the transportation of manufactured goods throughout the United States—also remains high. Thus the “upstream” jobs held by native-born workers in industries associated with manufacturing are also better off as a result of immigration.”
This phenomenon feeds into what has been a mainstay in President Obama’s economic plan: the so-called “trickle-up economics.” In essence, this theory proposes that less-taxed the middle and lower classes are, and the more the government spends on programs for the common good, the more every economic class will benefit. For example, the more money at the lower end of the economic spectrum, the more large corporations benefit (as the amount of people who can afford product x or y increases); furthermore, the more money put back into the economy increases the number of jobs (and thereby decreases unemployment), because as demand is raised the “supply” is raised as well.This theory is nothing new; it is what boosted the American economy back in the days of Henry Ford, who would pay his workers far better wages than the market average so that they would put more money back into the economy.
The incorporation of immigrants into the American labor would be highly beneficial to all Americans, especially if the government institutes social programs to kickstart the trickle-up economic cycle. Fewer jobs will be moved offshore. Manufacturing will increase. More money will be put into the American economy. Banks will benefit. Small businesses will benefit. Universities will benefit. According to an estimate from the Cato Institute, if amnesty were granted to every undocumented immigrant in America, the total cumulative income in ten years would increase by $470 billion. Ironically enough, that was a strategy used when my ancestors were first coming to America. Low income jobs, such as factory workers or railroad laborers, were not being filled, so the government passed a series of convoluted laws enabling temporary or permanent citizenship to be given to immigrants who filled those vacancies. Nowadays, the jobs that fit that mold are primarily in agriculture. The federal H2A visa brings farmworkers into the US for a temporary period, then makes sure that the workers go back to their country of origin.
I watched some political speeches made by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump, eager to hear what their crafted opinions of the American Dream are. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders emphatically believe that the American Dream is alive and well, while Trump believes that the dream is dead.
Is the American Dream dying? The data does not bode well for the current state of the American Dream: the average American had far more purchasing power in 1950 than they would now. According to the US Department of Commerce, in 1950, the average annual family income was $3,300. The average cost of a car was around $1,510, and the average cost of a house was $7,354. Therefore, the typical home cost 2.2 times the average family income, while a car cost .45 times the average income. In 2014, those figures stood at $51,017 for average income, while the average car and home cost $31,252 and $188,900 respectively. The current numbers yield ratios that are starkly different: the average American home costs 3.7 times the current average annual income, while the average car costs 0.6 times the income. As evidenced by those ratios, the cost per family in terms of percentage of income for both cars and homes increased dramatically over that past 64 years. However, that is not the most concerning part of America’s economic reality – the tuition-to-income ratio has changed from .18 to .79 (that is, it would require 18% of the average family’s income in 1950 to pay for college tuition, whereas today it requires 79% of average annual income). In essence, families now have to spend far more money on the basic requirements for living (e.g. housing), leaving the average American less money to pay for the luxuries (for example, the luxury of secondary education).
These numbers just give more truth to the idea of granting amnesty to all undocumented immigrants. For generation after generation, trickle-down economics has killed the middle class while pushing the wage gap even higher.
So what is to blame for the stigma surrounding immigrants? Why has the immigrant experience advanced with time? Every American citizen, with the exception of those who belong to native communities, has family who immigrated to the United States. What is to blame for our lack of compassion? For starters, racism and colorism inherently affect many Americans’ perspective of immigrants. Just as the Irish and the Jews were once considered non-white (and therefore subject to discrimination), most immigrants today are people of color. As demonstrated by the recent election, anti-immigration policymakers (read: conservatives) garner much of their support from places with higher unemployment rates than the American average; hence, this support comes from those whose job opportunities are naturally scarce, leading to a fear and distrust of people who could “steal” these jobs, however nonexistent they are. It is easier to focus on a tangible threat (for example, than on potential benefits.
It is a strange dichotomy; America is already great in so many ways, but we were also never great. Our nation was built on the back of slave labor. Our laws repressed women, people of color, Jews, and immigrants. We have so, so much work to do as a nation. We, the people of America, need to be introspective, while also appreciating the differences in identity that deny opportunity and cap the potential for individual American Dreams to take place. As President Obama said in his farewell address, “That’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.” America never has been a perfect nation, but we have demonstrated a remarkable ability to bend without breaking.
“Ask not what your country can do, but what you can do for your country.” Somewhere along the line, America changed from being a refuge for those fleeing persecution to being a nation blind to the calls of its people. We lost our “Melting Pot” status. President Kennedy, in his inaugural address, shifted the focus of the American Dream from working to improve one’s personal situation to working for the good of America as a nation. America no longer needed to support immigrants, immigrants were expected to support America. This is not mere post hoc apophenia, however: Kennedy’s speech came at a time where recent immigrants made up only five percent of the population. JKF did not have to care about immigration. Nowadays, that number is up to 14.1 percent, which is fantastic, but only if we make it so.
We need to practice the kindness and empathy that was lost to immigrants after that shift in definition of the American Dream. We need to remember that 99 percent of this country’s people were immigrants at one point. We need to work to create both legislative and social solutions to the problems immigrants face (and have faced for centuries). Most importantly, we need to understand that people always have, and hopefully always will, come to America in search of a better life.
I’m not sure how American I am, but I know that as long as I live here I will fight for everyone’s right to be a part of this nation. My family has been in this country for around a century, but I still think of myself as a conglomerate of my great-grandparent’s countries of origin. Perhaps that’s what the American Dream means to me, the ability to exist as a citizen of this nation of opportunity while still being proud of my heritage. I initially set out to discover the link between immigration and the American Dream, and what I found is that one cannot exist without the other. Without immigrants, America cannot advance, both socially and economically, and every American Dream starts with immigration to America. It is up to all of us who do not face the fear of deportation, the job discrimination, and the hateful slurs, to support our peers who do. They are American, regardless of their citizenship status. From the Jaffee’s and the Strausses, who came to America generations ago, to Joe’s family, who came less than twenty years ago, everyone has something to offer America. It is up to us to make sure America offers everyone something back in return.
Short URL: http://miltonmeasure.org/?p=8734