The American Dream – that idea of limitless possibilities – of being able to succeed based on your own individual merit and effort – is a sacred idea in the American mind. It’s the story of the underdog, who against all odds, makes it: the guy who shows up at the dock day after day, to find work, doing anything, loading cargo, and who one day becomes the owner of the shipping line; the domestic cleaner who saves and invests her meager earnings, and before her death gives a gift of millions to a university; the kid from the ghetto who studies hard and becomes a brilliant scientist; the peanut farmer who becomes President.
These two ideas – a nation open to immigrants, and a land of dreams built by little people through hard work -- are intertwined, and deeply ingrained upon the American conscience. Any idea or act that somehow goes against these concepts strike a deep visceral chord. We cannot even begin to understand the federal policy makers until we understand these two concepts and their place in the American mind. The ideas have a history hundreds of years old in the American consciousness.
On the other hand, these two ideas are not so deeply ingrained here. In fact, in our recent history, the very ideas themselves are foreign to us. We have not had any significant immigration. Sure, we have contract workers, but not immigration in the sense of allowing people to put down roots and build for generations and to be a part of our society and government and culture. Unlike for most Americans, immigration is not part of our personal heritage.
Although life in the private sector rewards effort with success, the single largest employer – the government – relies to a large extent on a system of “who you know” rather than “what you know.” There are ceilings on advancement. And a new person in power can result in a complete change in your situation that has nothing to do with your merit. It’s the relationships that matter more. The icon of the immigrant who beats all odds to succeed, is not a dominant part of our family histories.
Thus the bewilderment with the federal perspective. We do everything we believe is required to protect our culture, which itself is not a dominant value of the ever-morphing American culture. We allow workers to enter, but not to immigrate. We pass laws that favor the hiring of our own ethnic group over others. We “reform” our labor laws, requiring aliens to exit periodically, for the expressly stated purpose of preventing them from growing roots and becoming part of the political landscape, the power base. It all makes perfect sense, and resonates with our core value of cultural preservation. We don't want to become politically alienated. We strive to protect our ethnic control over the institutions of power. But the American value and the local value smack hard against one another.
Never mind that in many ways,
This is all worth bearing in mind when we sit at a table discussing issues with the representatives of the federal government. They are the sons and daughters of those immigrants who were once disenfranchised workers coming from a foreign land, and who entered
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”