Opinion: American Exceptionalism and the Immigrant Experience

For many years, I have heard the term “American Exceptionalism,” and for a long time I just thought that it was arrogance on the part of those using it to express the superiority of the United States.

Now that we are in the time of Trump, and I see all that we can lose, I have come to believe that the US is exceptional. Not in a superior way, but in a fundamentally unique way.

American exceptionalism can mean many things to different people, but the immigrant experience in the United States may be the most unique aspect. Although we do not allow immigrants into the US in the same numbers as many countries do, during the past century we have created a climate of openness and assimilation for immigrants that is hard to compete with.

Partly as a result of this influx of new energy that immigrants bring with them the US has become the unparalleled leader of the free world.

My own family history, which is not unique, illustrates this process of assimilation.

My grandfather came to New York City from Poland in the mid-1920s and worked there for a few years before sending for his family. My grandmother, my mother, my aunt and my two uncles came over from Warsaw in 1929 speaking only Yiddish (a few years later all members of their family left behind would be dead caught up in Hitler’s Final Solution).

They came through Ellis Island with no idea of what to expect. My grandfather worked in the glove factory that my father’s family owned, eventually my father (whose own family came from Poland) met my mother, he went to war, he liberated a concentration camp, and after returning to the US he married her.

My uncle also went to war and later became the first member of the family to go to college, became an accountant, married and had a wonderful daughter. My other uncle after returning from WWII worked for the seafarer’s union, and my aunt eventually married, had two children and moved to California.

My mother gave birth to me and my sister. We both went to college. I now have two sons. And so it goes.

My purpose for telling you this is to illustrate the American experience that immigrants have experienced during the last hundred years. These immigrants are ordinary people who came with just their dreams and not much else.  They worked very hard so their children could become successful Americans.

These immigrants and their descendants became the backbone of what makes America great.

Europe has let in many immigrants, but the crisis they are facing today is due in part to their inability to assimilate them into their society. The United States, on the other hand, is known for assimilating its immigrants despite the ongoing endemic racism that seems to be part of every society. America has built into its core the openness to accept anyone and give them the freedom to fulfill their ambitions. This is what has attracted so many people from around the world to immigrate to the US.

In addition to being the right thing to do, allowing immigrants into our country has helped the US economy to be the most stable and robust in the world. In a recent report by the partnership for a New American Economy called “Open For Business: How Immigrants Are Driving Small Business Creation In The United States”, the key findings included:

  • Immigrants started 28% of all new U.S. businesses in 2011, despite accounting for just 12.9% of the U.S. population
  • Over the last 15 years, immigrants have increased the rate by which they start businesses by more than 50 percent, while the native-born have seen their business generation rate decline by 10 percent
  • Immigrants are now more than twice as likely to start a business as the native-born
  • Immigrants start more than 25% of all businesses in seven of the eight sectors of the economy that the U.S. government expects to grow the fastest over the next decade. These include health care and social assistance (28.7%), construction (31.8%), retail trade (29.1%) and leisure and hospitality (23.9%), among others

There is no question that our current immigration system is not working well and needs to be fixed. Millions more opportunity-seekers want to come to America than our current laws can accommodate.  There are many possible solutions we should be discussing, but what is not acceptable is the Trump administration blaming immigrants for violent crime when the crime rate for immigrants is well below that of native born American citizens. All this does is increase bigotry, discrimination, and fear among the US citizenry and  creates an environment where people are actively discouraged from coming here or staying here. That’s not what America is about and it runs counter to the long term image that the  Unite States has projected since its inception.

The Trump administration proposals for restricting immigration from seven countries and rumors that it will cut immigration by half and deport 11 million immigrants will not only hurt the US economically but hurt its image by taking away one of the key aspects of American exceptionalism. It is imperative that the Indivisible movement do all that we can to pressure our representatives to stop the Administration from pursuing this self-defeating policy.

Do you believe in American Exceptionalism? If so, what aspects of our society do you think contributes to it and how can the Indivisible movement contribute to preserving American exceptionalism?

Also,  check out this opinion piece from the Washington Post called “It’s time for Democrats to become the party of American exceptionalism”.

Mark Burkholz has been Director of Technology and a math and computer science teacher at Lawrence Academy since 1992. He lives in Groton with his wife Sheara Friend.

Opinion blog posts represent the opinions of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Indivisible Groton Area or its individual members. IGA invites input and opinion from among the diversity of its membership.

Mark Burkholz
Mark Burkholz has been Director of Technology and a math and computer science teacher at Lawrence Academy since 1992. He lives in Groton with his wife Sheara Friend.

One Reply to “Opinion: American Exceptionalism and the Immigrant Experience”

  1. Great opinion piece, and I enjoyed reading your personal story. There is one statement I’m not sure about though – “the crisis [Europe is] facing today is due in part to their inability to assimilate [immigrants] into their society” where the U.S. “on the other hand, is known for assimilating its immigrants .” I’m not sure this is an entirely fair or accurate comparison as it stands – though I have little insight into what is happening in Europe. I think the article could stand just as well without the comparison. I hope to see more pieces from you.

Comments are closed.