why we need immigrants

What if you had nothing? No home, no DVD player, no car, no skills, no money and couldn’t even speak the language? What if you had nothing except a suitcase full of clothes and a few photographs? Welcome to the outlook for many immigrants.

Politicians roll out the immigration debate all the time, but what most people don’t realize is just how frightening the prospect of being an immigrant is. I have been a temporary immigrant once in my life, when I moved to Russia. I came with the full-fledged support of an international firm that provided housing and help with the inevitable paperwork, and I still was overwhelmed, arriving with nothing except a suitcase full of business suits.

Imagine, however, showing up in New York City or Washington DC or Los Angeles with no knowledge of the language, no unique skills and no real savings. Imagine that hours before you landed at JFK or Dulles or LAX you were in the midst of a country at war, or a country where you were no longer welcome because of your race or your religion. Your only hope is to come to a country – ideally the US – where you will be allowed to work hard, raise a family, live in peace and practice whatever religion or custom or culture you choose.

I find it hard to believe that so many people make this drastic choice. It’s easy to flee a country, maybe, when staying means you’ll be killed or raped or maimed. But it’s less easy to imagine fleeing a country where your family has roots, you are a respected member of a community and you have a cultural or religious tradition stretching back hundreds or even thousands of years.

Yet every year someone does. In New York you see huge, thriving, vital immigrant communities. It is not uncommon to meet people in New York who don’t speak English well yet. I’ve found that it’s not uncommon even in a small town in Florida, either. It is not uncommon to meet a former doctor working as a janitor, or a teacher working as a clerk. And it is not uncommon to see immigrant family after immigrant family succeed against these terrible odds and pass on their work ethic and almost feverish belief in the American dream to the next generation.

I find it really inspiring, and when I look around my workplace I see America made more vital when I have one colleague who’s Russian, another Dominican, another African, another Australian, another Bosnian, and on and on. One of the things I truly dread when I consider leaving New York is a more homogeneous life – fewer ethnic communities, less exotic music piping out of shopfronts, vanilla accents. I know being an immigrant doesn’t make anyone a more interesting person, but I believe being around all of these different cultures and beliefs and cuisines and languages makes me a more interesting person.

I hope that the anti-immigration forces remember that immigrants are desperately hoping to come to America, not for a free ride, but exactly the opposite – to pay their fare and reach the same destination as the rest of us, financial and personal independence.

  • Ruth

    What an inspiring post, Steve! Thanks for saying all of this because it’s said too little these days. At my suburban school, we have a teacher’s aide who used to be a lawyer in Syria. We have a bus driver who had almost finished her medical doctor education before feeling that she had to leave Russia. Seventeen different languages are represented at our school, and we are a thriving, vibrant school. Almost all of our teachers’ aides are from other countries, and they are strong, dedicated women who are desperate to make sure their own children work hard and succeed so that they can be productive, full citizens of the United States. It’s inspiring to be around these people on a daily basis, and I hope that the diversity in our schools makes our own children work harder than they would in a more pampered, homogeneous environment. We were recently designated as a school of excellence, not because it’s a school where every child has every advantage, but because most of the children in our school come from homes where really, really hard work is the expectation.

  • http://www.thewisdomjournal.com/Blog/ Ron

    I, for one, don’t have ANY problem with legal immigrants. Where the problem lies is in how the government allocates how many legal immigrants can come in from which countries. Back in the 90′s there was a shift in where our immigrants came from — Europe and Asia was decreased while Latin America was increased. Perhaps we should have a policy similar to Australia where immigrants can come in if they can prove they will contribute to society in some way rather than be a drain on it.

    Another problem is that with our open border policy, we don’t know WHO is coming in.

    I have a heart for those wishing to come here legally, who value the freedoms we have enough to honor our legal system of immigration. Bring ‘em on!

    I have a heart for those wishing to come here illegally as well. When conditions are so tough in your country that you’re willing to do ANYTHING to get out, we need to find a way to help those people come here legally.

    • http://www.thewisdomjournal.com/Blog/ Ron

      Good grief, Europe and Asia WAS decreased? Make that Europe and Asia WERE decreased. Almost makes me sound like I’m from Mississippi!

    • http://www.bripblap.com Steve

      I believe the correct Mississippi phrase would have been “Europe and Asia done been decreased” – so you’re still incorrect :)

    • http://www.bripblap.com Steve

      And just to clarify if anyone is offended, I am from Mississippi – lived there until I was 24. Ron knows I’m from Mississippi, too – it was a joke, but maybe that wasn’t clear judging from the angry emails. Don’t be offended – I am making fun OF MYSELF.

  • Charlotte

    Interesting article and I certainly understand why people come to America. But the title is “why we need immigrants” and I don’t really see that addressed here. Because “being around all of these different cultures and beliefs and cuisines and languages makes me (you) a more interesting person?”

    • http://www.bripblap.com Steve

      Fair enough. I was, in fact, trying to say why WE need immigrants – because they do enrich our culture. I think it’s fair enough to say being around all of these different cultures, etc., makes me a better person and therefore that’s a good enough reason in and of itself to encourage immigration…

  • Janette

    We need immigrants because, unless you are a pure blooded Native American, we all are immigrants.

  • Puddin

    You would give American jobs to these immigrants. I have a better idea…bring the US global military home, kick out ALL ALL ALL the H1Bs and give the ex military their jobs.

    We ‘need’ immigration about as much a cup of hemlock. This article is an epic fail.

    • http://www.bripblap.com Steve

      Well, best I can say to that is that everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I guess…