Who are we as citizens of these United States? With the exception of the indigenous Native Americans, we are all immigrants in this immigrant nation.
This nation is a great nation. Immigrants have helped make it so.
In 1958, before he became president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, wrote a book titled, A Nation of Immigrants. In his book, Kennedy observed:
The abundant resources of this land provided the foundations for a great nation. But only people could make the opportunity a reality. Immigration provided the human resources to make the opportunity a reality. More than that, it infused the nation with a commitment to far horizons and new frontiers, and thereby kept the pioneer spirit of American life, the spirit of equality and of hope always alive and well.
In our Thanksgiving blog of 2013, we observed:
It is unquestionable that America has been the beneficiary of an unparalleled immigrant advantage, in terms of intellectual and human capital. For that we are thankful.
It’s not just the brain gain, as Darrell West of the Brookings Institution puts it, that immigrants have provided to the development of America and advancing the American dream. It’s also been the incalculable contributions that immigrants have made in doing the back-breaking work required to eke out a living — to make the economy hum and make the future better for their children. For that we are thankful.
One decade later, in 2023, we remain thankful to those immigrants of the past, and the new immigrants who have come to this country, keeping “the pioneering spirit of American life, the spirit of equality and of hope always alive and well.”
We say this in spite of the fact, as we noted in our blog preceding this one, that America has an “immigration dilemma.” That dilemma is not of recent origin. In large part, it can be attributed to the failure to enact and enforce meaningful immigration reform in the U.S. since 1986.
The immigration dilemma has been exacerbated by the “migrant crisis,” precipitated by the influx of migrants seeking asylum here in recent years, and the growing divide in the country regarding immigrants, precipitated by Donald Trump and his “anti-immigrant” MAGA supporters.
We are not thankful for the immigration dilemma nor for its intensification. We are very thankful on this Thanksgiving, however, to be able to reflect on immigration and what immigrants have contributed to this great nation.
In spite of its stellar standing as an immigrant nation, there have been concerns regarding immigrants since the country’s founding. When the USA was established, only white male property owners were given voting rights. Most of those individuals were Englishmen, as were the nation’s and states’ political leaders.
As a result, there was a resistance to others of different origin. Near the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century, the worries were primarily about those of European stock: individuals from countries like Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Poland. By the later 20th century and into this 21st century, they are about immigrants from places like Asia, Africa, China, Central America, and Mexico.
We are thankful that through the centuries those immigrants from around the world have brought their brains and brawn to contribute to making this country the more perfect union envisioned by the founders. We are even more thankful that those contributions made by a diversity of immigrants have exceeded and continue to exceed anything envisioned by the founders.
New immigrants continue to make a difference for the U.S. They start and build businesses. They work at the top of organizational pyramids and on the factory floors, in restaurants and hotels, and in the fields. They come from everywhere and settle across this country — primarily in coastal and metropolitan areas. We are thankful for each and all of those immigrants wherever they live and whatever they do.
Every Fourth of July since 2006, the Carnegie Corporation of New York has honored Great Immigrants “who have enriched and strengthened our society and democracy. The 2023 class of Great Immigrants was comprised of 35 naturalized citizens from 33 countries.
This year’s class included “individuals who have fostered opportunities for others through their work as educators, mentors, philanthropists, job creators, public servants, story tellers, and advocates.” It also included two Nobel laureates, an Olympian, a Member of Congress and, from the media and entertainment world, a magazine editor, a best-selling novelist, a seven-time Grammy Award winner, a Hollywood star, and an Academy Award winner. On this Thanksgiving, we say thanks to these great immigrants for their service to our American society and democracy.
On this Thanksgiving, we also say thanks to the millions of Americans who, although they have not been named great immigrants, have made invaluable contributions to making this nation great. In its press release on its Great Immigrants for this year, the Carnegie Corporation states that according to the American Immigration Council:
- Immigrants create new businesses at a higher rate than the overall population, with 3.2 million entrepreneurs generating $88.5 billion in annual income and employing millions of Americans.
- Immigrants or their children have founded 43.8 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
- Immigrants also contribute to key workforce need in America, comprising 15.2 percent of nurses, 25.9 percent of health-care aides, and 23.1 percent of STEM workers.
Those statistics are stunning. What is even more stunning is that they only tell a small part of the immigrant story, because that story in full is the American story.
Immigrants were essential to making America a great nation in the past. They will be essential to making it a great nation in the future.
This great nation belongs to us. It belongs to each of us who recognizes we are immigrants in this immigrant nation.
That is why on this Thanksgiving we say: let us come together as fellow immigrants. Let us do so to collaborate in propelling our country forward and upward to “far horizons and new frontiers.”
Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.