How America Stopped Being The Land Of Opportunity A Long Time Ago

by John Haltiwanger

For centuries, people have been coming to America from all corners of the world in pursuit of a better life. Since 1607, when the first permanent English settlement was established at Jamestown, the United States of America has grown into a vast and powerful entity.

From a tiny colonial settlement that barely survived, a superpower was eventually born.

The story of the United States is very romantic, and one that has attracted millions of people to its shores over the years. America's tale is one of struggle, hardship, determination, innovation and grit. It is also one of corruption, greed, malice and violence.

It must never be forgotten that much of the land the United States now inhabits was taken from an indigenous people by force. Furthermore, it was also cultivated by slaves, and much of America's prosperity has been a product of the suffering of others.

With that said, the history of the United States is filled with numerous inspiring examples, particularly in terms of the hardships many immigrants have overcome. The US has constantly epitomized the pioneer spirit, and has inspired much of the world in the process.

When President John F. Kennedy was still a senator, he wrote a famous book entitled "A Nation of Immigrants," outlining his vision for immigration policy in the United States. In the book, Kennedy celebrated the immigrant tradition of America.

President Obama expressed similar sentiments during a speech in 2013:

We are a proud Nation of immigrants, home to a long line of aspiring citizens who contributed to their communities, founded businesses, or sacrificed their livelihoods so they could pass a brighter future on to their children...

Yet, despite the fact that America's politicians continuously celebrate the nation's immigrant tradition, new immigrant groups have perpetually been met with animosity upon their arrival in the United States.

At one point in time, new waves of Italian and Irish immigrants were heavily discriminated against in the United States.

On that subject, one might recall this line from Jack Nicholson's character in the Martin Scorsese film "The Departed," "Twenty years after an Irishman couldn't get a f*cking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace." This was in direct reference to John F. Kennedy.

Today, the majority of people migrating to the United States come from Mexico, as well as other parts of Latin America. It's no secret that they have also experienced a great deal of discrimination.

Yet, one wonders how many Italian and Irish Americans might harbor anti-immigrant sentiments today, and if they are aware of the history of discrimination against their own people.

Relatedly, as Joanna Weiss states for the Boston Herald, "... It’s worth remembering how malleable the rules of immigration have been, as each successive wave of foreigners has come across the border, drawing resistance from those who came before."

In essence, at present, it is somewhat ironic that many Americans are opposed to new waves of immigrants, despite the fact that they are the descendants of immigrants.

Moreover, it's not as if this land inherently belongs to Americans, it was taken violently from an indigenous people that have largely been wiped out or pushed to the fringes of society.

According to a recent article from the Washington Post, anti-immigration sentiment is growing in the United States, even as thousands of Central American children are stranded at the border with an extremely uncertain future.

More than 50,000 unaccompanied children have attempted to cross the border this year. With that said, a recent poll also shows that 70 percent of Americans believe the children should be allowed to stay.

Thus, America's position on immigration is very convoluted. This is perhaps why it has been so difficult for President Obama and Congress to come to terms on immigration reform.

Moreover, the contentious relationship between President Obama and House Republicans has not helped matters.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, more than 41 million immigrants lived in the United States in 2012, which was a historic numerical high. Of those 41 million, around 11 million are undocumented. On that subject, the phrase "illegal immigrant" should be eradicated, as no human being is illegal.

Most people migrating to the US do so in the hopes of improving their economic situation.

To many people, immigrants might simply be a statistic. They are seen as a drain on the economy, and a threat to the livelihood of hard-working, tax-paying Americans.

Yet, it seems that these perceptions are fueled by inherent misconceptions surrounding immigrants. In fact, undocumented immigrants already pay billions in taxes, and if the pathway towards citizenship was easier, they would pay billions more.

Furthermore, the notion that immigrants are taking American jobs is completely unfounded. As Jeff Jacoby notes for the Boston Herald:

Broadly speaking, immigrant workers and US-born workers are not substitutes but complements; because they tend to have different skills, they generally don’t compete for the same jobs... We would be poorer by far without them.

Jose Antonia Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has been one of the leading voices in presenting the human side of the immigration debate. Nearly two decades ago, his mother made the very difficult decision to send him to the United States.

In June 2011, Vargas made the brave decision to reveal himself as an undocumented immigrant in a New York Times article. The article outlines his struggles and fears:

My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away... But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality... I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own.

On July 15, 2014, Vargas was detained by the Border Patrol in Texas, but eventually let go. Following his release, he stated, “I was released today because I am a low priority and not considered a threat... I would argue that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country are not a threat either.”

The fact of the matter is that no person is born into affluence because he deserves it, it's simply a matter of chance. While the prosperity that the United States experiences is largely a result of its own hard work and ingenuity, it is also a product of American imperialism and the exploitation of weaker states across the globe.

One only needs to look at the impact of the School of the Americas to realize this. As Al Jazeera highlights,

Based at Fort Benning in the US state of Georgia, the military academy has trained 65,000 Latin American soldiers over six decades... Overall, the School of the Americas has produced soldiers and generals responsible for the massacre and torture of tens of thousands of people across Latin America... The school's influence is still being felt today.

Moreover, the School of the Americas is still active today. Only it now operates under a different name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Hence, the impact of American imperialism must be acknowledged, as many of those migrating to the United States live in countries that have been detrimentally impacted by the activities of the US government.

The United States instituted a number of disastrous policies during the Cold War in Latin America especially, and it's no wonder that many of these countries are still suffering the consequences.

Regardless, you also can't blame any individuals for desiring better lives when they can't live comfortably and safely in their own countries. Likewise, the path to citizenship in the United States is not easy. If placed in the same circumstances, many Americans would likely choose to enter the United States without documentation as well.

It's a sad fact that where you are from dictates where you can live and go in this world. The borders we have established are artificial, a product of history, rather than an ultimate reality.

They have changed so frequently in the short course of human history, yet we continue to quarrel over them. In our most tragic moments, we have even killed one another over these squiggly and impermanent lines.

The United States of America is meant to be a country for all peoples, regardless of race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or background. It is meant to be the land of opportunity for all, not a select few.

It is true that there needs to be practical measures in place in terms of US immigration policy, but at present it is apparent that the current policies simply aren't working.

It's time for a change, and for more humane laws to be enacted. The pathway to citizenship must be easier, and immigrants should not be stigmatized simply for desiring a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

In 1903, the words of a poem by Emma Lazarus were engraved on a plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The statue continues to remain a symbol of America's immigrant heritage, as well as the values upon which it was founded.

The plaque reads:

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-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

It's time that United States of America truly lives up to these words.

Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros./Once Upon a Time in America