American Dreams

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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A reader responds to our previous one who immigrated from Beijing:

The “American Dream” is illusory. The promise of a chicken in every pot was promoted during the Depression, and there are other countries that offer a similar quality of life and opportunity as the United States, and generally with fewer strings attached.

The Chinese lady who emailed you is well educated, as is her husband. These are the perfect immigrants, since they can help build the country and their immigration is desirable.

The other side of the equation that claims to look for a better life is uneducated, has difficulty surviving when they get here, and generally goes on welfare while taking day work. Food stamp usage in California is said to be ten million—one-third of the state population. [Ed. note: That’s not correct: the number of Californians on food stamps is only about 4.5 million—11 percent of the state’s population and “among the nation’s lowest.”] That sounds like a nightmare. Is it a scam or is it a true safety net?

Immigration is good for an economy. The reproduction rate in the U.S. is below the level necessary for growth so immigration is necessary—but the right kind of immigration.

Encouraging investors who can bring capital and not need welfare is one choice, another is young people who might marry, have a family and grow, but who have an education or trade which promises immediate employment. The economic drag presented by immigrants who are functionally illiterate and have nothing but a strong back is awful, yet politicians won’t deal with the immigration problem because a strong stance costs them votes. The past amnesties have legalized the status of prior illegals and they all vote for open borders since they have friends and relatives they’d like to bring in, so no politician will stand and deliver. Obama has openly weakened the illegal immigration stance, and that leaves educated, productive families like the Chinese lady’s waiting for status. The dislocation is unconscionable.

I am an immigrant. But I came with an education, capital, and built a business which employed people. I gained residency, married and had a family, and became a citizen. I have never applied for, not gained, welfare of any kind. I happily pay taxes because I see some national benefit in doing so, although I resent the death tax (since the money that built the estate was already taxed) and the capital gains tax (since it is a tax on inflation, not production).

So, is this the “American Dream”? I don’t think so. I see the government taxing, fining, jailing as terrifying. The government is not our friend.

Another reader, Katie Bielamowicz, has a more measured take:

What I have come to realize is that like any dream, the American Dream has different interpretations for different dreamers. Do I think that that image of a white picket fence, station wagon in the driveway and 2.2 kids is the general consensus? Absolutely not. It’s too race and socioeconomic specific—not to mention taste specific. I’m white and upper-middle class and that image makes me regurgitate.

I see the American Dream more as an underlying cultural thought. It’s a belief that you can make it in America. I see it as a belief endemic to immigrants.

And what’s even more interesting about this phrase is that it was coined by a man who not only occupied the immigrant America, but also the affluent America. James Truslow Adams came from a family of both. His father was an immigrant from Venezuela. His mother was well-to-do. What an ideal meeting place to give birth to the American Dream.  According to Adams, the American Dream was “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” It’s a belief stemming from country made up of immigrants and prosperity.

For the majority of those whose families have been in America generation after generation, does it really even make sense to think that the American Dream, an ideal based on immigration, could apply? In my opinion, no. Many Americans have been in America for centuries. And low and behold the economy is changing, the social structure is changing and many of those deeply-rooted Americans are caught lagging behind when they thought they had it made. Why? Because of sheer birthright?

But turn around and look at the Mexican immigrants. Tell me they aren’t living the American Dream. They’re in a country that has running water—water that you can actually drink without fear of getting typhoid (yes, typhoid … it still happens in Mexico pretty often). It’s also water that you don’t have carry in five-gallon tubs to your home. They’re in a country where the government doesn’t blatantly murder its citizens (think Los 43 de Ayotzinapa).

And before anyone wants to argue, even if the American power structure murders its people (e.g. Freddie Gray), the people can at least protest and raise hell and have a chance at changing things instead of being silenced or killed by the government. Mexican immigrants have steady work despite having no formal education. And even if some Americans feel that they don’t get paid fairly, consider that the minimum government-approved daily wage in Mexico is as low as 66 pesos, which now with the devaluation of the peso is even more bleak—around $4 a day.

I’m not here to speak for the Mexican immigrants, but as an American who has immigrated to Mexico, I sure get how America can be pretty dreamy for a certain group of Mexicans.

That being said, for whoever is still thinking of their immigrant great, great, great, etc. grandparents’ version American Dream, of yesteryear, I say, “Sorry, that's been gone a long time.” They made it. They did better. How could it still be around? Now it’s your turn to do something radical. And me, I say, “Thank you, America, and thank you hardworking grandparents for the opportunity to live well and make my dreams somewhere new.”

More stories and reflections from readers are here. Many more photo submissions via Instagram. Have your own story to share? What’s your take on the American Dream? Email hello@theatlantic.com.