I said an oath, too, a few days before the president did, and his oath, as he himself pointed out, was pretty similar to mine, to the oath “taken each time … an immigrant realizes [his] dream.”
By this, he meant the oath taken when an immigrant becomes an American citizen. I took mine last Friday, in a group naturalization ceremony in Texas. The anthem was sung. Our allegiance was pledged. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” was played, its chorus (“I’m proud to be an A-me-ri-CAN”) croaking over the speakers. Certificates were awarded, pictures were taken and throughout we were reminded — by immigration officers, by the judge who administered our oaths, by Obama in a video message — that we had finally fulfilled our “dream.”
How odd. I can’t speak for the other 120 newly minted Americans who sat through that ceremony with me, but when I shut my eyes that night, Lee Greenwood didn’t feature in the soundtrack.
I find it curious that the word “dream” has become so pervasive in the rhetoric surrounding immigration (e.g., the DREAM Act). It’s a neat word, which conjures images of freshly arrived immigrants gazing upward at wondrous America, but it’s also problematic: It implies that, by letting immigrants in — that is, by letting them realize their supposed dream — Americans are doing them a favor.
To be sure, immigration happens because foreigners would rather live in this country than stay in their own, but the logic of the dream rhetoric obscures the fact that America has as much, if not more, to gain from their decision to pack up and migrate. This is especially true in the case of naturalized citizens, whose average wages are a full $4,500, or 11.5 percent, higher than those of natural-born citizens, according to a study from the University of Southern California published in December. In other words, naturalized citizens, on average, have more disposable income and pay more in taxes.
What’s more, applying for citizenship (and visas and green cards, for that matter) is a tedious bureaucratic process, and the sort of motivation that propels immigrants past all the paperwork and into this country often translates into entrepreneurship. The stereotype of the immigrant-owned bodega or dry cleaner or nail salon is a testament to that fact, as is the list of immigrants whose names are attached to well-known American institutions. To name a few: Andrew Carnegie, Scotland; Joseph Pulitzer, Hungary; Marcus Goldman (as in Goldman Sachs), Germany. Or how about this: Sergey Brin, half of the duo that invented Google, moved to the United States from Russia at age 6.
And along with the Carnegies and the Brins, immigration also attracts hordes of new workers, whose presence here benefits Americans. One Cato study from 2009 found that legalization of low-skilled immigrants could add $180 billion to the gross national product of the United States — that is, U.S. nationals would themselves be $180 billion richer. Conversely, the study showed that stricter border security could take $80 billion out of American pockets.
But that’s Cato, and their findings are not for everyone. Fine. Consider this: Immigration is itself an American act. Leaving your country to pursue happiness in a foreign land requires a certain gung-ho-ness that is quintessentially American. Saying that America is a land of immigrants doesn’t mean that it’s a melting pot of nationalities (though it’s that, too — I wonder if it ever occurs to anti-immigration advocates that they probably wouldn’t be around if, instead of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” the plaque on the Statue of Liberty read, “Piss off”), but it means that America is a land made up of people who will go to great lengths to pursue their dreams.
Which is not, obviously, the same as saying that their dreams are fulfilled when they place their right hands over their hearts and pledge their allegiance to the American flag. Their dreams are bigger, bolder, sometimes Google-sized. To assume otherwise is problematic because it implies that immigrants have more to gain from this country than the other way around.
It’s not a leap to say that this mentality leads to bad policy. The dream rhetoric casts immigration as charity work, and it’s hard to be charitable when Americans at home are hurting. If, as Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity,” he would be better served finding a vocabulary that highlights for America the benefits of welcoming these striving immigrants.
Teo Soares is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .