Is America Still the Land of Opportunity?

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman applauds a recent event honoring the finalists of Intel’s national science talent search, a contest that recognizes promising American high school science students. Friedman notes the high number of finalists of Chinese and Indian descent and reminds us that it’s our willingness to welcome immigrants that allows such talented youth to flourish in our nation.

Friedman argues eloquently for the value of immigration. “If you need any more convincing about the virtues of immigration,” he says, “just come to the Intel science finals”. It’s the American system that makes such achievement possible. In Friedman’s words, “when you mix all of these energetic, high-aspiring people with a democratic system and free markets, magic happens.”

Indeed, it does. Friedman’s example, however, leaves ambiguous what precisely it is that immigrants bring to our country. While they certainly bring intelligence—even the groundbreaking intelligence that the kids in Intel’s contest represent—intelligence is not the primary trait that captures the soul of those who come to seek a new life in America.

Immigrants demonstrate many virtuous traits—from the courageof the Cuban refugee who escapes home in a raft hoping to begin anew in a better world, to the perseveranceof the Sri Lankan doctor who has to wait tables while he earns a license to practice in the US. The hallmark quality of the American immigrant, however, is industriousness. The overwhelming majority of immigrants come to America because they want the opportunity to work. The American dream is not the dream of a free lunch, but of the chance to earn for oneself and one’s family a higher station in life.

America, the land of opportunity, has always been a beacon to those seeking the opportunity to work, live freely, and rise to the highest heights that their effort can take them. Are we still that land?

At a time when jobs are scarce, however, many are clamoring instead to turn America into the land of safety nets, a place where the ambitious are harnessed to provide money and food and health care for everyone else, a place where an American citizenship is regarded as a claim to be given the rewards of the American system without having to earn them.

Underneath the question of immigration reform, we face a deeper question: Is America still that nation that in past generations opened its arms to foreigners, inviting them to demonstrate their industry and earn their just rewards? Do we still hold that in this nation, we do not care about an individual’s lineage or heritage, but care only if he is honest, industrious, and freedom-seeking—and if he is, recognize him as American in spirit, whether he was born in Texas or China, New Hampshire or Zimbabwe?

Thomas Paine, writing in 1776, welcomed the immigrant:

O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe, Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Do we still care to prepare such an asylum—a land of opportunity, a place where the industrious are given the freedom to produce great values and profit by them, and to enrich all of our lives in the process?

Photo by rickz on Flickr.

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