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The Immigrant Advantage

An opinion in Sunday’s New York Times poses a complicated question, do the foreign born have a better chance of achieving the American dream than the native born? Anand Giridharadas, author of The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas (and a Shaker Heights native), writes that the foreign born are more likely to have graduate degrees and be employed and less likely to be divorced than native born Americans. This gap is even more pronounced outside of the more cosmopolitan cities on the east or west coast: in the 10 poorest states, native born Americans earn only 84 cents for every dollar their foreign born counterparts earn. They are also 36% less likely to live in poverty compared to the native born. It’s important to remember that Giridharadas is writing about legal residents, those with green cards or who have naturalized and not recent immigrants without status, who obviously have a very different experience. Nonetheless, they came by choice and many had employers waiting for them in the US. They managed to navigate the labyrinth that is the US immigration system—which requires quite a lot of gumption and persistence, keys to success in other areas.

Is it really surprising then that resourceful immigrants are successful in this country? Giridharadas attributes the success of immigrants in relation to the native born in the poorest states of the country to a combination “the seemingly contradictory values of their birthplaces and their adopted land, to balance individualism with community-mindedness and self-reliance with usage of the system.”

Giridharadas isn’t trying to say that the foreign born are somehow superior to native born Americans. Only that socio-economic conditions in some of the poorest states in the country have greatly deteriorated, straining family and community relations that are the key to success. The American dream of upward mobility isn’t dead, he says, “rather, the success of immigrants in the nation’s hurting places reminds us that the American dream can still work, but it helps to have people to lean on. Many immigrants get that, because where they come from, people are all you have. They recognize that solitude is an extravagance.”