Column: Our Immigrant Heritage

By Patricia Chadwick

Immigration is the bedrock of the uniqueness of America. Our cultural heterogeneity is indeed a hallmark of our Americanism.  We are proud to discover where our ancestors hail from – proof is in the popularity of the presents we give to our nearest and dearest with names like “23andMe”, “AncestryDNA” and “National Geographic Geno DNA Ancestry Kit”.

Even without doing a survey, I am willing to hazard a guess that such DNA gifts are vastly more popular in this country than in, say, Switzerland, or Finland or almost any other first, second or third world country. The more diverse our individual heritage, the more “American” we feel. I must admit to being slightly disappointed to discover that my own DNA results provided no eye-opening surprises – Scotland, Ireland and England were sprinkled with a bit of France and Norway, hardly a geographic surprise. I was hoping to find that perhaps I had traces of Egyptian or Persian or Mongolian ancestry – proof that my forbears had roamed the earth. That would have allowed me to find a rationale for my own intense wanderlust.

So, what is it that has made people from around the world want to come to this “New World”? The draw, I think most would argue, is our cultural and social DNA, which can rightly be called American exceptionalism, in its truest sense. Based on freedom of religion, speech and ideas, combined with the opportunity and encouragement to pursue one’s dreams, its lure is universal.  It knows no geographic boundaries; it is not confined to the realm of the educated; nor is it a function of socio-economic status, religious background or IQ.

Unfortunately, our immigration policy in this country today is defined in large measure by a bill that was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. Only 35% of the current US population was living at that time. The population of the United States was 194 million then; it is nearly 330 million today. Mindboggling!

The healthy state of the U. S economy today – with unemployment at its lowest level in decades – offers a unique opportunity for Congress to meaningfully expand our immigration. Increasing the ranks of those we allow to immigrate will, I believe, mitigate the temptation for illegal immigration because they will see an open door, not a wall. Not only would new entrants to our country provide added opportunity for long term growth, they would help to offset the wave of baby boomers who for the next  decade and more will be reaching retirement age at the rate of approximately 10,000 per day – that’s more than 3.5 million each year.

And while revamping the system, why not make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to put the education they received in their home country to work?

How come a medical degree earned in Greece is less valuable than one earned here in the U.S.? And why cannot such a surgeon, with years of post-graduate work here in New York, practice surgery in this country? That’s just one example I know personally, but there are myriad others. My dental hygienist, who hails from Russia with a double master’s degree in electrical engineering, was not allowed to ply her trade when she came to this country. What was the purpose of admitting her as a highly skilled immigrant, only to put her on the path to unemployment? Is a Russian electrical engineer less capable than an American one? Maybe she could have taken a test to prove her credentials. But that was not an option.  But she had drive and an indomitable spirit and was determined to achieve her American dream, so she went back to school and learned a new profession – what an example of American exceptionalism.

Much is made of the fact that our immigration policy should be directed to admitting skilled workers. However, in today’s economy, the jobs that are crying to be filled are not those that require advanced degrees and years of higher education. They are in industries that employ semi-skilled workers – retail, elder care and restaurants. Unskilled labor is also in high demand – be it temporary farm workers or an array of jobs that require manual labor, a skill that is slowly disappearing from our population.

Let’s remember that many – I would say MOST – of our ancestors who came to this country on boats (enduring appalling living conditions) entered the American work force as laborers. They started at the very bottom of the ladder and many remained there all their working lives, often living in squalor, without health insurance, without a pension or social security. But they kept their eye on the ball – making sure that their children went to school, spoke English, obeyed the law, and had a chance to go the next giant step toward success.  And that’s why, as a country, we are so successful today.

The litany of immigrant luminaries in this country is awe-inspiring. They have come to our shores from scores of countries, pursuing a vast array of professions and subscribing to diverse political and religious beliefs. And most of them arrived on our shores far from rich. Andrew Carnegie’s first job was as a telegrapher. The Lehman Trilogy, the brilliant play (recently in performances in New York) dramatizes the story of Henry Lehman and his two brothers who arrived in this country from Bavaria in the 1840s as street peddlers in Alabama and ultimately built a monumental financial powerhouse. Such tales have been repeated thousands and thousands of times in our history.

Sadly, the subject of immigration today is embroiled in a political maelstrom – admittedly there are complex issues, but to threaten gutting this long tradition runs the risk of emasculating a grand part of our American culture and heritage. Let’s hope that does not happen. 

Patricia Chadwick is a businesswoman and an author. She recently published Little Sister, a memoir about her unusual childhood growing up in a cult.

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