The American Dream: Do Immigrants Have A Say?

We were sitting in People’s Park off Kirkwood, which is one of the main student drags. I was with 3 other girls for our summer weekly Book Nosh, and we were about to dig into some of the characters of CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Everyone was slurping up some iced coffee drinks and other summery liquid confections, and in a wonderful mood, I think, with the air cooling down, the sun slowly setting though it was still quite light out. And then 2 young men walked up and asked out of the blue:

Can we ask you a question? What do you think about the American Dream?

Apparently they were doing some kind of project for a journalism class. Their professor encouraged them to talk to random people about their thoughts on the American Dream. I was pretty much at a loss for words, but in general, I agreed with the other girls’ descriptions of “opportunity” and “success” as well as how it is a pretty antiquated label. I can’t think of the last time I actually heard anyone use it unless to make a joke or with sarcasm.

My mind turned toward my parents. I imagine that some version of the American dream drove them to immigrate to the US. After being here for thirty some years I wonder how they would have described the American dream to these students.

Thinking about our immigrant history I have to turn towards Jose Antonio Vargas’ story. He wrote an incredible essay for the NY Times “coming out” as an illegal immigrant, and then recently I saw a TIME tweet about an article called “Inside the World of the Illegal Immigrant” and his project Define American:

There are an estimated 11.5 million people like me in this country, human beings with stories as varied as that of the U.S. itself yet who lack a legal claim to exist here. It’s an issue that touches people of all ethnicities and backgrounds: Latinos and Asians, blacks and whites. (And yes, undocumented immigrants come from all sorts of countries, like Israel, Nigeria and Germany.) It’s an issue that goes beyond election-year politics and transcends the limitations of our broken immigration system and the policies being written to address them.

How difficult it was for my parents, even for my father, who did everything “right,” in terms of the naturalization process. And that’s a part of the picture that most don’t understand about immigration. It’s much more than simple legality or citizenship. And I don’t have to get into how there is something wrong with the discourse, which is at the very least, dependent on vilifying language. The words that qualify immigrant, and not just “illegal,” tend to dilute the wide range of possibilities and circumstances that people face in this country. These are human beings, not just potential tax-paying citizens or machines for the factories. My parents tried their hand at so many businesses, and all kinds of work, and I remember how much dignity they set aside, not only to scrape by, but to be visibly accepted as real US citizens pursuing the same goals of work, home, and family.

With Father’s Day coming up, I’m mindful of my family, too, and specifically, of Andy, of course. How fortunate the babies are to have a father who is present. He comes home for lunch often, and will sometimes see the babies then, and he is usually in charge of their baths. On his “off days,” he spends it reading them the same 4 books a thousand times, wrestling with them on the floor, and trying to get them to eat scrambled eggs and PB and J sandwiches. Not to mention copious amounts of poopy diapers. He’s amazing.

And, I’m thankful for our fathers, too. Andy’s father, Tom, is gracious and compassionate, thoughtful and sensitive. Andy is really similar to him in so many ways. Tom exudes a quiet strength so no matter what is happening it just feels calm and reassuring when he’s in charge. Likewise, I always felt like if my father was involved with anything it would work out fine – he helped me with school projects and writing assignments, and later in life, perspectives on ministry. I can’t imagine what life would be like without him, or Andy or Tom.

Going back to the American Dream…Tom and my father clearly embody it in different ways. And yet, at the core, despite one having Czech roots and the other staunchly Korean, one who does a mean chipped ham sandwich and the other who grows peppers and perilla plants every summer, one who has been in ministry for over three decades and the other involved with church for so long before becoming ordained for ministry…they both absolutely prioritize family and relationships. The American Dream may not be applicable anymore but whether it’s appropriated by immigrants or reinvented by the majority culture, it can still be interesting to think about with others. Because there really isn’t an American Dream anymore…it’s just the Dream, and every human being has one, and has a right to live it out.

I think that’s what I take away the most from the dads in my life: They have dreams and they
go after them hard. I can’t think of a better reason to be thankful this weekend when we celebrate fathers– those fathers that stick around, those fathers who have to work and travel all the time but still call every night, those fathers who check up on their 30-something kids, those fathers who know they don’t have it all figured it out but keep trying anyway, those fathers who know that meetings will come and go but that soccer game is important, those fathers who dream big, and keep dreaming for their kids, whether the kids are in the same country with them, or in another country waiting for the paycheck their father just got and mailed to them for groceries. What's happened with the DREAM Act recently is exciting, and hopefully the beginning of something really important and positive. Maybe it's an example of what should be the New American dream…a new way of doing and being American, and that’s fighting for life and survival, at whatever cost.

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