Photo by Michael Righi. Published under Creative Commons License:

Lessons This Immigrant Learned About The American Dream

Or… What We Risk Losing Under Donald Trump’s Policy Agenda

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If anyone reading this has a positive story they’d like to tell about their immigration journey, please share it under the hashtag #WeAreAllImmigrants

In a drab government building next to a shopping mall parking lot, the boss of an office clerk with a powerful pair of lungs and a soaring voice taught me the meaning of the American Dream.

Now, 13 years later, the nation I adopted during my naturalization that day is bitterly divided and seemingly incapable of defining that dream. A drastic travel ban order from our new President has upended the lives of tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants and left millions of residents and citizens fearful of their future. Meanwhile, similar numbers of young Latin American immigrants are seeing their hopes for the aptly named Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act dashed and are instead now facing potential deportation. This is not the America I signed up for.

So, I feel compelled to share the lesson I received from the general manager of the Long Island headquarters of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

I was there with other new Americans to declare my allegiance to the United States, hundreds of us gathered in a spacious, warehouse-like INS building, lined with rows and rows of chairs. It seemed an oddly dull, joyless place to hold an event that carried such symbolism for people who’d come through years of INS interrogations. Today was the day. We were finally being acknowledged as Americans in the place we called home.

On the sidelines stood my beaming American family, including my wife, who held my two-year-old daughter in her arms. As a couple, we didn’t fit the stereotype: she of Puerto Rican descent, petite, darker and more smooth-skinned than the tall, fair-haired, weather-worn Aussie being naturalized. Looking out across the rows in front of me, I knew I stood out: a sea of black hair lay before me, the heads of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Koreans, Chinese, Jamaicans, Iraqis, Nigerians, all greatly outnumbering those from European countries. It was a snapshot of the evolving America I was joining.

The general manager, whose name I never committed to memory, greeted us warmly. Sporting a Stars-and-Stripes tie, he began by introducing the “dignitaries” seated behind him. I was briefly struck by the moment’s banality. These weren’t exactly eminent persons. They were workers from the facility: the accounts clerk, the processing administrator, the human resources rep. My inner snob was whispering in my ear: What is this? A dude in a silly tie, a caricature of American tastelessness, calling these low-ranking staff “dignitaries?”

But after we’d completed the Oath of Allegiance, something magical happened. “And now,” declared the general manager, “Joan from application processing will lead us in the national anthem.” (In truth, I don’t remember her name or title, but I do recall that this African-American woman occupied some kind of routine office role.)

Joan — in my mind, she has always been Joan — took to the floor and, without backing music, started belting out, not the Star Spangled Banner’s standard, but the gospel-inspired version made famous by Whitney Houston. As she took it to its rousing crescendo, the entire crowd before her started whooping and cheering while enthusiastically waving the mini American flags they’d been handed. Together, we raucously willed Joan to the song’s heart-stopping finale.

It was an unbridled celebration of humanity, and it shamed my inner snob into silence. I now understood what this public servant had artfully done, gaudy tie and all. He’d given us a demonstration of what the American Dream represented: that in this country, everyone, whether or not they ever get to be called a “dignitary,” is dignified. That dignity stems from them having as much right as anyone to pursue their dreams, whether it’s to work for a government office or to sing on a stage with all your heart. It was the perfect message with which to start an American life. Now, more than ever, it’s a message that all Americans need to re-hear.

Later, I found that this concept was reiterated in a photocopied letter that was included in the naturalization package I received, the same letter that was handed to millions of new Americans during the oath ceremonies of that era. In it, a different public servant, one of significantly higher rank, talks of the “grandest” of American ideals: “[A]n unfolding promise that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance, and that no insignificant person was ever born.” See the copy below. Will President Trump convey the same message? Will he mean it?

When it involves immigrants, American Dream stories often focus on spectacular business success: Google’s Russian-born founder, Sergey Brin; Elon Musk, who grew up in South Africa; Intel founder Andy Grove, who migrated from Hungary. Or, like those of the six foreign-born American recipients of this year’s Nobel prizes, they will highlight academic excellence. These stories help burnish a mythology around the idea of the brilliant, striving immigrant.

But for the vast majority of new Americans, the dream is far subtler and more personal. It’s about an opportunity to pursue any goal, however big or small, without the unreasonable barriers that other societies impose upon that pursuit. The combined power of these individual aspirations, modest as each may be, is what has always driven this unique nation forward.

Here’s the thing, though: none of those pursuits are possible unless society itself, through both its official laws and its cultural mores, creates a space of freedom within which they can occur. The underlying story of the immigrant’s American Dream is much more than one of an individual defying the odds; it’s a story of the communities that receive those newcomers, allowing and encouraging them to go after their goals. Including everyone in this grant enterprise of life: that’s what makes America great.

By contrast, a nation that builds border walls, discriminates against migrants based on their religion and willfully breaks up families that have lived in our communities for decades will deplete its vital cultural store of freedom and opportunity. It will be a nation in decline.