We Americans are famous for finding geographic solutions to all sorts of problems. Trouble at home or college? Road trip! Can’t find a job? Move across the country! Want to add a bit of zing to your retirement? Go abroad! As a travel writer, I love covering (and living) these stories.
I was raised on travel tales, the ones older relatives told about my forebears pulling up stakes and heading off into the unknown: my great-great-grandparents crossing the Atlantic in wooden ships, my great-grandparents heading west to California by covered wagon. Itchy feet seem to be in our DNA; by the time I left for college, I’d lived in seven homes in three states. Today, I’m hard pressed to think of an American family that isn’t scattered across half the continent, if not half the globe.
The Spanish like to call this having a culoinquieto, literally a restless backside, conjuring images of schoolboys squirming in their chairs, longing to be elsewhere on a fine day. But often we are inspired to seek greener pastures not by a sense of adventure but by harsh economic necessity or the need to flee town one step ahead of people who are interested in killing us.
I have no idea of the real circumstances that inspired my Irish, English, and German forebears to brave the dangers of an Atlantic crossing. I suspect the few “facts” that got passed down have been considerably sugar-coated — if not outright fabricated. Did they all arrive with their papers in perfect legal order? I doubt it. But one thing I do know for sure: my ancestors, and those of 98% of all Americans, were immigrants.
Every few generations, some descendants of immigrants forget their roots and decide it's time to keep out the latest wave of foreigners seeking a fresh start in the land of freedom and opportunity.
Today the line between legal and illegal immigrants has been considerably blurred by new legislation. Although currently blocked, one recent executive order allowed legal residents to be refused re-admittance to the US because of their country of origin and religion. Yikes! That's not suppose to happen in America! Another executive order allows US residents who hold green cards (the ones that make them permanent residents on the way to becoming US citizens) to be deported simply on the strength of an immigration officer alleging that they “pose a risk to public safety”; they don’t even need to be charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. Where is the due process in that? It's almost as if the government is starting to redefine all immigrants as illegal. Except their own forebears, of course.
It’s not easy to be an immigrant these days. But then, it’s always been a rough road, testing the limits of each newcomer's courage, strength, and endurance. Perhaps the struggle itself helped these transplants find the grit and determination to flourish on US soil.
Today, 244 million people — 3.3% of the entire human population — have left their motherland to live in another country. Some 41 million of them have found their way to America, and no doubt lots more will do so in the future. And this is good news. Because as it turns out, far from being a drain on the economy, immigrants are good for our bottom line.
"Immigrants take our jobs. They don't pay taxes. They're a drain on the economy. They make America less ... American. You've probably heard all these arguments," writes the Atlantic. "Indeed, they've been heard for a century or two, as successive waves of immigrants to this nation of immigrants have first been vilified, then grudgingly tolerated, and ultimately venerated for their contributions. This time, too, there is ample evidence that immigrants are creating businesses and revitalizing the U.S. work force."
“Economic analysis finds little support for the view that inflows of foreign labor have reduced jobs or Americans’ wages,” concurs a Penn Wharton report. “The economic effects of immigration are mostly positive for natives and for the overall economy.”
Immigrants don't make America less American; they are America.
Here are just a few ways immigrants and their families have contributed to the common good.
What do we owe to immigrants and their families? Only everything we've accomplished in the last 241 years. And it's no different today. Just ask anybody in the tech industry or California's agricultural Central Valley or the health care industry or New York City where they'd be without foreign-born workers. And now it's payback time. As actor Kevin Spacey puts it, "If you're lucky enough to do well, it's your responsibility to send the elevator back down."
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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