Immigrant Advantage in the Struggle for the American Dream

I came across a fascinating New York Times opinion piece a few weeks ago. That in itself is quite unusual, since I don’t read the Times, it being known for its liberal-progressive bias and me being known for my disdain for that sort of thing. But, something else I was reading apparently made note of it and I saved the link. As it happens, the article was originally published roughly 20+ months ago. But, the topic is still quite relevant to today, what with the issue of immigration — both legal and illegal — being on many people’s minds.

reaching out a handThe author of the article, Anand Giridharadas, is a 30-something of Indian descent who was born in Ohio. The topic is that the census data indicates foreign-born immigrants to the United States — specifically, naturalized citizens — appear to have an edge that native-borns don’t, when it comes to achieving personal & professional success. He has some ideas about why this is so, something which in aggregate he calls simply “the immigrant advantage”, and I think he is onto something.

He begins with some statistics…

“From Mississippi to West Virginia to Oklahoma, native-borns are struggling to flourish on a par with foreign-born Americans. In the 10 poorest states (just one on the East or West Coast: South Carolina), the median household of native-borns earns 84 cents for every $1 earned by a household of naturalized citizens, compared with 97 cents for native-borns in the richest (and mostly coastal) states, according to Census Bureau data. In the poorest states, foreign-borns are 24 percent less likely than native-borns to report themselves as divorced or separated, but just 3 percent less likely in the richest states. In the poorest states, foreign-borns are 36 percent less likely than native-borns to live in poverty; the disparity collapses to about half that in wealthier states like New Jersey and Connecticut.”

Now, while the statistics themselves are quite interesting, it is the observations and analysis later in the article that intrigued me and are what I wanted to focus on.

“[L]et’s first acknowledge the obvious: Most naturalized citizens — nearly half of America’s roughly 40 million immigrants — arrived by choice, found employer sponsors, navigated visas and green cards. (We’re not talking here of immigrants who never reach citizenship and generally have harder lives than American citizens, native- or foreign-born.) It’s no accident that our freshest citizens have pluck and wits that favor them later.

BUT I also think there’s something more complicated going on: In those places where mobility’s engine is groaning and the social fabric is fraying, many immigrants may have an added edge because of their ability to straddle the seemingly contradictory values of their birthplaces and their adopted land, to balance individualism with community-mindedness and self-reliance with usage of the system.”

Giridharadas relates an interesting example of such an immigrant who, despite difficult beginnings and a personal tragedy, was able to use a combination of hard work and self-reliance, the kindness of friends & family when necessary, and some government financial aid to rise above and achieve his dreams.

“In places bedeviled by anomie, immigrants from more family-centered and collectivist societies — Mexico, India, Colombia, Vietnam, Haiti, China — often arrive with an advantageous blend of individualist and communitarian traits. I say a blend, because while they come from communal societies, they were deserters. They may have been raised with family-first values, but often they were the ones to leave aging parents. It can be a powerful cocktail: a self-willed drive for success and, leavening it somewhat, a sacrificial devotion to family and tribe. Many, even as their lives grow more independent, serve their family oceans away by sending remittances.”

Latino immigrants at their coffee shop

Latino immigrants at their coffee shop

I have seen this first-hand — well, sort of second-hand — within my extended family, as well as in friends and co-workers I had back in my NJ days.

“What’s interesting about so many of America’s immigrants is how they manage to plug instincts cultivated in other places into the system here. Many are trained in their homelands to behave as though the state will do nothing for them, and in America they reap the advantages of being self-starters. But they also benefit from the systems and support that America does offer, which are inadequate as substitutes for initiative but are useful complements to it.”

That’s a great observation. The “trick”, I suppose, is in determining the proper balance. Too many native-borns these days are socialized to think that the State (i.e., government) is looking out for their best interests and that they can and should depend on it for… well, too much. Thus, we get the “entitlement” generation(s) — i.e., those who think they are entitled to <enter laundry list here> — and a neverending abuse of the welfare system, never satisfied with the assistance and always looking for, even demanding, more. Unfortunately, a lot of illegal immigrants and “refugees” worm their way into American society and demand these benefits as soon as they get here. On the one hand, it’s wrong and despicable; on the other, can we blame them for having certain expectations? As a nation, we have brought this upon ourselves.

“In an age of inequality and shaky faith in the American promise of mobility through merit, we can learn from these experiences. Forget the overused idea popularized in self-help guides that native-borns must ‘think like an immigrant’ to prosper, an exhortation that ignores much history. Rather, the success of immigrants in the nation’s hurting places reminds us that the American dream can still work, but it helps to have people to lean on. Many immigrants get that, because where they come from, people are all you have.”

Or, put another way, it seems that we as a society would do well to remind ourselves of some of that “Old World” family- and community-mindedness, while recognizing that it does not need to dull one’s sense of initiative and self-reliance.

There you have it! I would also like to point out something else. Often when discussing immigrants living & working in America, we think in terms of two extremes: either a) isolated ethnic communities or b) total assimilation without anything distinctive left. But, what is described here is a “third way”, where successful, naturalized citizens can embrace the principles of freedom, etc., in their adopted land and live & work harmoniously alongside others from diverse backgrounds. It is this blending of certain values, practices, and other distinctives which allows so many immigrants to thrive and achieve the American Dream.

As a bonus, here is an article you might enjoy from Entrepreneur magazine: “How Six Immigrant Entrepreneurs Transformed Dreams Into Businesses”


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