Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
“What assurance does the United States have that you will return to India after your coursework is over in five years?” Sometime mid-August of 1995 that was the question posed by a middle-aged woman sitting high on the other side of a thick glass separation inside the fort-like confines of the Consulate of the United States in Kolkata.
Standard response to the oft-repeated, and very anticipated, line of questioning includes reaching out into your bag and taking out (laminated) copies defining ownership of family property, real or imagined. I had none of these. My parents did not have any property except for the small home they built in the twilight of their lives, and I was very late in starting my process, leaving me empty-handed when I walked in. Cocky in my own way, I remember replying “Ma’am: Why would the United States want a Ph.D. from Cornell leave the country?” In today’s lingo, it roughly translates to “Who’s afraid of the American Dream?”
“Especially Americans” is the answer I get way too often these days.
A significantly large part of commentary these days equates more humane immigration and refugee policy with an insidious ploy “to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World”. Somehow a more humane policy “shows preference to people who have shown absolute contempt for our customs, our laws, our system itself and they are being treated better than American citizens.”. Not only discomfort, the keyword is disenfranchisement as we are reminded often – “every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter.” “Why should I sit back and take that? The power that I have as an American guaranteed at birth is one man, one vote, and they are diluting it. No, they are not allowed to do it. Why are we putting up with this?” As summarized by another, eventually, immigrants will “swamp the voting power of all of you Americans out there who still know the country’s traditions, constitution and history.”
If that was not incendiary enough, came a follow-up on the bullhorn a few days later. “If you are over 40, you may have trouble recognizing your own country. It’s just too unfamiliar…. Abrupt change causes social chaos, always…If you eliminate familiar things overnight, societies fracture, populations tend to explode. We’ve seen that happen. The last Industrial Revolution, in the end, provoked armed evolutions. Hundreds of millions of people died. Germany got Hitler, Eastern Europe got Stalinism, yes we did wind up with antibiotics in the end, you can thank technology for that and we do, but we also got genocide and atomic bombs.” Moving to action items, he continued – “What will the consequences of that change, of that revolution be? In your bones, you know the answer. It’s terrifying, and it does not have to happen.”
You read that right. According to their reasoning history got Hitler and Stalin because of the influx of new people with a different set of “customs and habits and generational expectations”. As importantly, the answer to that problem is known in the “bones”!!!
Amidst all the fearmongering, it is worth reminding ourselves what immigrants bring to the table. The immigrant population in the US is about 46 million today, with their US-born children they number close to 86 million, says US Census’ Current Population Survey 2020. The immigrant population is overwhelmingly working age; as a result, foreign-born workers contribute a full 17% of US workforce. A little over one-seventh of US population are naturalized citizens, like yours truly; one in eight residents is a native-born with at least one immigrant parent. Routinely, economists add a full 1% to sustainable projected growth in the US because of immigration. Put in another way, at least 1/3rd of economic output would have vanished if the surge in immigrant population did not happen since passing of 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that put an end to discrimination against Asians and people of other non-Northwestern European origins.
Without immigration that occurred post-1965 reform, US GDP would be lower than China’s. Let that sink in first. For everybody who screams “America First” how about getting used to sit at the back seats?
I take it an accepted truth that some of the finest examples of the American Dream originate begin of its borders amongst people born outside. Immigrants mortgage their existence in lands far to come to a country they know few, if any. At the very least they will be challenged by most simple tasks of survival, exacerbated by a language and culture gap that leaves little room for comfort, or second chance. Refugees amongst us do the same with the added weight of doing it against their first choice. If nothing else they acted on a dream of a better life than what fate handed them. These are chosen people, chosen by themselves alone. Marked by a confidence, arrogance even, that they can drop in thousands of miles away and land on their feet. No matter when they made the journey, and what antecedents they possess, they had this in common that none had a do-over.
American Dream came to be because lives, especially immigrant and refugee lives, were built on dreams. Dreams of people who ended up here. Because they had the gumption to jump into the unknown, an abyss if they tripped. Because they built alliances and support networks as needed. Because they stepped back and stepped aside only to come back stronger. They had but one prize – survival, which is essentially what everything else boiled down to. If that sounds like the qualities required of the American Dream, it is only because they are. There would be no American Dream if not for the immigrants and refugees; failure to recognize them, past, present and future, for what they bring to the country is simply denying the raison d’être of American Exceptionalism.
If American policies are not centered around welcoming more immigrants and refugees to its shore, the country has lost its willpower to exist. It is as simple as that.
Americans afraid of the bearers of the American Dream, just because, are afraid – even hateful – of the concept of the American Dream, in effect. The same goes for political parties. Likes of the Nevada Senator in The Godfather trilogy, an imaginary character railing against “you and your whole fucking family” coming into “this clean country”, are everyday occurrence in parts of American media that profess blood allegiance to a false prophet. Maybe this is a continuation of the scorched earth policy that their patron saint embarked upon to stoke his base, or maybe it is strategic positioning that I still cannot make out why a political party would do that. As summarized by Peggy Noonan , the Grand Dame of American political commentary, in a recent column, “America hasn’t had so many first- and second-generation Americans since the great European wave of the turn of the last century. The political party that embraces this reality, that becomes part of it, will win the future.” Touché!
I am not expecting an epiphany overnight, but that is not going to stop us. We are here to stay and enrich the experience for all. We are no different than millions before, and after, us. Like it or not, you cannot live without us but you can leave us be. We need neither accolades nor platitudes. The best you can do for us to not create barriers meant just for us. Not that they will keep us away for long, for, we’ll prove ourselves indispensable with our presence, products and promises.
We are here and we will not have it any other way. We can even teach lessons on American Dream to all who are afraid of it, especially Americans. These learnings will make one exceptional, it might even reconstruct them as Americans.