This I Believe: I Believe Immigrants Make America Great

Feb 27, 2020

Essayist Bob Persiko

I believe immigrants make America great.

My maternal grandparents were refugees from an area in Syria that later became Lebanon. In the early 1900s they escaped a drought, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and relentless poverty to pursue a better life in America. My grandfather, we called him “Jiddu,” which is Arabic for “my grandfather,” was employed in a shoe factory and spent his spare time hanging out on his friend’s vegetable farm. Neither of them achieved prominence. They lived their lives contributing to industrial America and raising their children. I could not communicate with my grandparents because of the language barrier. I was told that Sittu, my grandmother, learned to read the destination on the bus she needed to take, but other than that could not communicate in English. I wish I had been able to ask them about their lives in the old country and why they left.

Like other immigrant groups, they took a risk in coming to America’s shores. I believe those risk-takers adopted a pioneering spirit to overcome the challenges in their countries, and also to succeed in facing the challenges in the U.S.

When I served as a vice consul at the American Embassy in Mexico, 1973 to 1975, I interviewed applicants for immigrant visas. I consistently saw a pattern that began with these candidates illegally moving to the US and working. This was a huge risk. Women, who in rural Mexico would have stayed at home and had many children, opted to work full time in the US and limit the number of children they bore. I remember interviewing one young woman who said she had left the rural state of Michoacan with her husband to take up a factory job in Chicago. She said she missed the all-encompassing support she had in her Mexican community, but she noted that such a support blanket also smothered any aspirations to be different than what her community expected. I believe that by establishing themselves as contributors to the U.S. economy, that couple, along with thousands like them, proved that they were assets rather than liabilities and were awarded the visas they had long sought. Hard work and determination led them to believe in, and strive for, the American dream, just as my grandparents had.

These are examples of what I am sure is a common experience for most immigrants. While the first generation struggles to establish themselves and often live in ethnically separated communities, their offspring often go on to earn a college degree, serve in the US armed forces, raise families, buy houses, and achieve what their parents had only dreamed of. The vast majority of immigrants are not highly educated or skilled, though America has certainly benefited from them. No, they are for the most part humble blue-collar workers. I believe we, the successors of those risk-taking immigrants, live in a stronger, wealthier nation because of them. And I hope that there will always be room in America for such immigrants.

I believe immigrants make America great.

Bob Persiko is a volunteer at Global Connections and a language specialist in the English for Professional Purposes Intercultural Center at Penn State.