I’m a first generation immigrant. My mother had immigrated to the US in the 80’s, bringing my sister and I with her. I don’t remember much about the move, other than the understanding that I had no choice in the matter. I remember the overwhelming sadness I’d felt when I left my friends and family, and a premonition that I would never see them again.
True to the testimonies of most Americans, my mother immigrated to the US for better life and opportunities. Although she led a privileged life in South Korea, it was, and still is a society where it’s difficult for women to work, have a career and gain their own personal identity. Especially, after my father’s unexpected death, it became abundantly clear to my mother that as a woman and a mother, it would be absolutely impossible for her to obtain a job or to make a living in her home country. So, she decided to immigrate to America, only place where she, as a single mother, could provide a life for herself and her two little girls.
On the other hand, my life in South Korea, at least from what I can recall, was a happy one, and although back in the 70’s, poverty had engulfed much of the country, so much that a UN aid workers referred to South Korea as being “the basket case of the world”, the childhood I remember was filled with many friends and family, and the joy and happiness of being around them.
At that time, it didn’t occurred to me or mattered that I was moving to a place where I had a better opportunity and better education, and in essence, to a place where I could become whatever I wanted. The only important thing was being with my mother. America was where she needed and wanted to be, and so, I followed.
Looking back, I realize that much of my mother’s decision to move to the US had more to do with her dreams for my sister and me rather than for herself. She wanted to give her girls the rights and opportunities that she never had, to pursue what makes us happy rather than what is dictated by social and cultural norms.
Over half a million people migrate to America every year in search of the same opportunities, and although we may differ in ethnicity, culture and language, what is common is our pursuance for a better life.
As second, third or tenth generation immigrants, Americans often forget that the early settlers of this country didn’t arrive with legal documentation but merely their desire to flee the impoverished and oppressive societies in their homelands. Like the forefathers, migrants today take the journey to a foreign land into the unknown because of their hopes and dreams of a better life for themselves and more importantly, for their children.
We recount their stories and the history of our nation with all the glory that it deserves. We hail their bravery and uphold their heroic tales of survival, which ironically enough would not be possible without the help of Native Americans. Yet, we condemn those who make the same arduous journey today from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.
They are the new pioneers, the forefathers of their countrymen, and they too make the journey across the continent seeking better lives and opportunities for themselves, their families and their children.
America is a nation historically built on immigration, and each and every migrant community has had a significant impact on many aspects of life in the United States, shaped our culture and has contributed to the prosperity of this country. Generations of immigrants have helped lay the railroads and build our cities, pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone, and ultimately, made America the economic engine of the world that it is today.
It is the core of who we are as a nation, and our success would not be possible without the immigrants who have made contributions in building our economy and society. The successive waves of migrants keep our country demographically young, enriched our culture and added to our productive capacity as a nation, and as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said in his testimony to the Congress, “This country has benefited immensely from the fact that we draw people from all over the world.”
I am grateful for the opportunities that my family has had in America, and although everyone has their own theory and opinion on what makes this country great, I believe that the core of its greatness comes from the fact that America has been and remains to be a country of immigrants that constantly changes and evolves.
Therefore, it would be a national shame if we closed the door to immigrants who come here to work and build a better life for themselves and their families, and more importantly, who shaped this country to become the great nation that it is today. As the words etched on one of the iconic symbols our country so poignantly states, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, America cannot turn its back on those who arrive at our borders. We should not deny them the opportunities that were given to us and our forefathers.