For about 30 years, I’ve been conducting a very informal and very unscientific sociological experiment. Whenever I get into a cab or (now) an Uber, I ask the driver, who is inevitably an immigrant, a series of questions such as: Where are you from, and how long have you been here? My last question is always the same: Do you like it here?
As you might imagine, the answers to my initial queries vary widely. The drivers come from many different countries and have been here for various lengths of time, from less than six months to more than 40 years. However, the answer to the last question is always roughly the same: They love America, feel extraordinarily blessed to be here and have no desire to permanently return to the country of their birth. What’s more, they love Americans, who have been very welcoming to them. “You would not be as welcome in my home country,” some add.
Whenever I have one of these fascinating conversations, I think of my father, who came here from Italy more than 60 years ago. Like these cab drivers, my father deeply loves America, feels extraordinarily lucky to have been able to come and put down roots here and thinks of Americans as the most open and tolerant people on earth. His story and the stories of so many other immigrants speak to the greatness of our country.
Defined by Migration
The United States is unique among nations in that it has always fed the hopes and dreams of newcomers and in turn been fed by those same hopes and dreams. For those escaping tyranny or simply socially and economically cramped lives, America has offered both interior and exterior freedoms—from beautifully expressed albeit imperfectly applied notions of liberty and equality to the wide-open spaces of our continent-sized nation. These waves of immigrants have given as much as, if not more than, they have received, helping to sustain the freest, most prosperous and most powerful country on earth. Today’s newcomers continue to feed this virtuous cycle, and their lives stand in stark contrast to the claims of both the nativist right and the identitarian left.
The story of the United States is one of the movement of peoples. Migration has defined other countries too, but never quite to the extent that it has shaped America. We are a mosaic of communities that are at once unique and fully American. People born elsewhere not only give our society their customs and culture, but often embrace our established customs and culture more zealously than those who were born here. Rarely have I felt greater pride in my country than when I stood and watched a man from Brazil and a woman from Vietnam shed tears of joy as they recited the Pledge of Allegiance and clutched American flags to their chests at their naturalization ceremony.
Each chapter of our nation’s history has been shaped by new people from someplace else: the different groups of Britons who first settled the eastern seaboard and created the nation’s core political and other institutions that continue to guide our country to this day; the Africans who came in chains and endured centuries of enslavement and crippling discrimination but who did endure and ultimately triumph, playing an outsized role in defining our nation’s identity and spirit; the Germans and Scandinavians who settled the Midwest and the West and who helped build the country into a great industrial and agricultural powerhouse (Sandburg’s “hog butcher for the world”); and the Irish, Jews, Poles and Italians who reshaped U.S. cities and bequeathed us rich new layers of American culture.
And while people from Latin America and Asia have lived in the United States for centuries, the past 50 years have witnessed great waves of newcomers from these parts of the world. Like their immigrant predecessors, these groups are now changing the country and likewise being changed by it—both for the better.
The American Dream
My father came just before this latest wave began, arriving in New York in January 1960, age 25, with a little more than $200 in his pocket—not a lot of money even in those days. He had been shaped by World War II and its aftermath, but unlike so many who came from Europe during that time, he was not fleeing violent repression. And while he had experienced severe deprivation and hardship both during and right after the war, he did not arrive in New York a desperate man.
To help support his family, he had left his home at 13 and gone to the nearest big city, Rome, to start working. He left Italy at 20 and spent the next five years living and working in France, Spain, Switzerland, Holland and, finally, England. He loved these places and made a decent living in each one, but he never stayed in any of them for long. “I always had one goal: America,” he has said on many occasions. He had come to believe that only in the U.S. could someone with his drive and energy satisfy his ambition. He turned out to be right, but not quite in the way he had initially envisioned.
Due to the war and the need to work at an early age, my father had only a few years of formal schooling. But he was very bright and eager to learn. By the time he arrived in the U.S. he spoke four languages, including English, and had been accepted at the Art League of New York, where he studied photography and painting. Unfortunately, his career as an artist never took off, and he abandoned it a few years later. But in every other way, including professionally, he flourished. Five years after arriving here, he had married and started a family, as well as the first of six very successful restaurants he would ultimately own and operate. A few years later, with me in tow, he and my mother headed out to the leafy suburbs, where I grew up.
Now approaching his 90th year, my father often uses phrases like “the American Dream” and “only in America” when looking back at his life, something he does more and more these days. He firmly believes he could never have achieved anything like the success he has enjoyed if he had stayed in Italy or in any of the other European countries where he lived and worked. There is nothing like this place, he inevitably says every time the subject comes up.
What the Far Right and Far Left Get Wrong
My dad’s life and the lives of tens of millions like him refute those who want to paint immigrants as either parasites or victims. The nativist right’s idea that immigrants take natives’ jobs, lower wages, don’t assimilate, commit most of the crimes, you name it—all run counter to the evidence. As it turns out, the exact opposite is true. For example, a recent study finds that immigrants are 80% more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans. In my little corner of America, immigrants own the bulk of the small businesses I patronize, from the restaurants to the dry cleaners to the convenience stores. And those businesses they don’t own, they often staff. There is also ample evidence that today’s immigrants and their children and grandchildren still easily assimilate into American society and, like newcomers of yore, still master English.
My father’s life is illustrative. Over the course of his 45 years in business, he served hundreds of thousands of customers and probably employed close to a thousand people. He provided me with all the educational opportunities necessary to thrive and helped put three of my cousins (the sons of his younger brother, who also immigrated here) through college. All this came from the hard work and intelligence of one man, born poor, thousands of miles away.
On the left, the idea that United States is a cauldron of intolerance and racism is also countered by what we know about immigrants and immigration. For starters, just look at the line of people trying to get in. According to Gallup, roughly 160 million people around the world who have expressed a desire to emigrate have named the United States as their desired destination. The vast majority of these people are not from Europe, and neither are most of the lucky ones who actually make it in each year, with nearly seven in 10 new immigrants coming to the U.S. from Asia or Latin America. What’s more, those already here are happy that they came. A recent Pew Research Center poll, for instance, found that 84% of American Latinos born outside the U.S. say they would immigrate to the United States if they had to do it over again.
All this jibes with my father’s experience. During his first days in New York, he met strangers who helped him find a job and a place to stay. Some of those people turned into lifelong friends. Not surprisingly, he’s never expressed a serious desire to return to Italy to live, nor does his large Italian family ever expect him to come back. In fact, they now consider him American, which of course he is.
My father’s American journey is being replicated right now in millions of different and yet similar ways. When I feel pessimistic about the state of affairs in this country—and I find myself doing that a lot lately—I try to remind myself of this great and continuous wave of smart, determined people arriving every day and the Americans who will welcome them and give them their first job or help them find a place to live.
Our founders and those who came after them had the singular genius to create a nation open enough to attract and absorb hundreds of millions of new people with new ideas, new ways and a new commitment to progress. Today’s immigrants still bring a special kind of yearning to match our country’s commitment to liberty and more than enough ambition to fill our wide-open spaces. This gift is one of our country’s greatest blessings and the source of much of its hope for the future. As my father would say: “Only in America.”