Land of the Free. Home of the Brave. Melting Pot. Land of Opportunity. With slogans like these, it comes as no surprise that people across the world are attracted to move to the United States. Our national rhetoric promises inclusion and equitable access to “The American Dream”, however the hardship and prejudice that today’s immigrants face when they arrive tell a different story.
I recently had the opportunity to visit Pui Tak, a grantee of the McCormick Foundation’s Communities Program. Pui Tak hosts English classes for adult students from East and Southeast Asia. I listened as immigrants from countries such as China, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia shared their stories. A strong common theme was their desire to create a better life for themselves and their families, whether they were in their twenties or seventies. Many of them work hard in low-paying laborious jobs. People make fun of their accents or tell them to go back where they came from, yet these courageous people press on like the generations of immigrants that came before them.
My grandparents moved to Chicago from Lithuania almost 100 years ago. My grandfather owned a gas station on the west side of the city and worked long hours to make sure my aunt and father could get college educations and not have to perform hard labor. Because of my grandfather’s hard work, my dad was able to attend college with financial help from the GI Bill after serving in the National Guard. My mother was a teacher with a Master’s Degree in Special Education and other advanced certificates in the field. Both she and my father worked hard to provide better opportunities for my sister and me. This instilled in us a strong work ethic which we applied to part-time jobs we had throughout high school and college to help support our family. I hope that future generations of our family can have a life that is easier still, and the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrant population can experience the same inclusion and opportunity to succeed.
The Chinese sometimes refer to the United States as “Mei-Guo”, which roughly translates to “beautiful nation”. People have been migrating to new lands for as long as we’ve existed as a species. We’re driven by the desire to provide a better life for ourselves and our children. As long as our country remains a land of opportunity, people will find ways to start a new life here. That drive and courage strengthens and diversifies our nation. We as Americans should not forget that many of our ancestors also started as immigrants and we should be proud to embrace their stories and the strength they provide.