Is the American dream fading for immigrants?

May 13th, 2011

Muaz Kaisi sits outside a Starbucks coffee shop in downtown Richmond.

RICHMOND, Va. — Muaz Kaisi, 31 bought a one way ticket from Jordan to the United States eight years ago in search of a better life.

“I came to America just like anybody else, just for the American Dream — you know that you can do anything you want,” Kaisi said.

Kaisi enrolled at Morgan State University in Maryland, eventually receiving a bachelors, which he hoped would help secure his future. He was optimistic at first. “Things were going pretty good, very good actually,” Kaisi said.

The honeymoon was short-lived.
“That dream didn’t last two years…now I work in a gas station as a teller, like anybody else, you know — just $9 to $10 an hour, after paycheck and taxes it would be like $8 or $7 something an hour,” said Kaisi.

Overwhelmed by America’s rising cost of living in a troubled economy, Kaisi said it became impossible to get ahead. “You pay $500 dollar rent, you put gas, you pay insurance — you’re in debt,” argued Kaisi.

Kaisi is one of more than 1 million legal immigrants who flock to the United States each year. America is known to many immigrants as the land of opportunity, a place where one can achieve prosperity and success. However, with the nation facing a $14 trillion deficit, an unemployment rate of 9 percent, and crippling prices at the pump, some immigrants are wondering if America is still the land of opportunity. Could the nation’s struggling economy erode the American dream for immigrants?

Research shows that some immigrants would agree. A report published in Business Week, March 2, 2009 found new research that shows,“highly skilled workers are returning home for brighter career prospects and a better quality of life.”

This report will explore the American dream from an immigrants’ perspective through personal interviews. The people interviewed in this story do not represent all immigrants. However their personal stories give an anecdotal viewpoint of how immigrants view the American dream today.

Some say they still have faith in the dream but others, like Kaiser said it’s long gone.

“There’s no such thing called the American dream anymore, even the older people who have been here like 30-40 years, the first thing they’ll say is oh America’s not the same anymore, it used to be in the 80’s, beginning of 90’s,” Kaisi said.

Kaisi said that war and debt has changed America, making it a challenging place to thrive. His former plan to become a successful professional, is now exchanged for more immediate necessity — paying bills.

“My goals,” Kaisi looks up as he ponders aloud. “Just paying down my debt, then maybe I’ll start over with new goals — after that I’ll be like 40,” Kaisi sarcastically laughed.

Kaisi believed a college education would open the door for better job opportunities, but became discouraged when that didn’t happen. India native, Willie Salem faced a similar disappointment, however he said his triumph had little to do with skills, and more to do with a tenacity.

“Nothing comes easy in your hand, it’s all about hard work,” said Salem. Hard work and persistence. He said immigrants who work hard shouldn’t have a feeling of entitlement, instead an attitude of resilience.

Salem speaks from experience; he moved to the U.S. in 2003 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. Salem not only received his bachelors but was also accepted into law school. He was forced to turn the offer down because of a lack of finances. Salem said he didn’t get discouraged, but instead sought another avenue.

“I just got into business, got my masters in that, and thank God I’m successful — I mean I can see the dream of America, it’s all about hard work and I made it,” Kaisi said.

In the face of a tough economy Economics Professor, Leslie S. Stratton of Virginia Commonwealth University stresses the importance of practicality and endurance.

“All people have the American dream — people buy lottery tickets; when the colonist first came to North America they were looking for gold, and they had lots of trouble getting them to work because they were looking for gold instead of planting plants and that’s why they almost starved to death,” Stratton said

Whether Americans or immigrants are skilled or not Stratton argues that financial stability begins at a fundamental starting point.

“Everybody has to balance their checkbook; everyone has to figure out what their income is and what their spending is, and at some point those two have to come in line with one another,” Stratton said.

Co-owner, Eduardo Dawson goes behind the counter to check out a customer at La Sabrosita.

Eduardo Dawson, co-owner of La Sabrosita Bakery, located on Richmond’s Southside, said he’s living the “American Dream.”

“Hola!” Dawson shouts out as he greets a regular customer in his native language, Spanish. The sweet aroma of freshly baked pastries permeated the air — a fragrance that matches Dawson’s journey… sweet victory.

“I have a home, I have successful business,” Dawson said with a satisfying smile.

However, he argues that his success didn’t come without many years of hard work. Dawson migrated to the United States from El Salvador in 1985. The 20-year-old was the first of his family to move to America. Dawson claims his road to success in America was paved with many challenges, including: learning a new language, combating poverty, and cultural assimilation. Dawson came prepared for all work and little play.

“I used to have three jobs and I used to spend like I had no jobs, I mean you gotta save money you know that’s the key to success — work and save,” Dawson declared.

Dawson said his idea of the American dream didn’t involve a big house, a flashy car or piles of money, instead he aspired to have financial stability and take care of his family. Dawson said his success took many years, “I’m talking about 15 years of hard work and sacrifice,” which he argues is something that most people aren’t willing wait for.

“People don’t like to start rough, they don’t like to start from nothing but it’s the only way,” said Dawson.

The challenges that immigrants face in America can of course vary depending on timing, personal skill sets, and wealth. Dawson credits his achievements to sheer grit and determination. Yet, he also didn’t face some of the challenges early on that recent immigrants face today. Dawson didn’t enter an America, who is restlessly fighting terrorism, a fragile economy, and the controversial web of immigration reform.

Reports show that progress in America’s troubled economy is slow not just for immigrants but also for American too. The college educated, skilled, and average “Joes” are all crawling the steepening mountain of America’s economy. Some have given up but, India native, Salem said he’s not giving up on the American dream.

“Destiny is just across the street and just holding yourself (persistence) is the key to success,” Salem said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re American or an immigrant, the dream is what you make it; I’m human, your human, he’s human we can beat the system easily — what is it all about? it’s all about hard work,” Salem said.

Hear their stories: Immigrants discuss the American Dream

Ayuen Aciek said his past struggles hinder him from taking hold of the American dream. Aciek doesn’t know his exact age because his birth certificate was lost at war in his native country, Sudan. However, that’s the least of his worries; the former child solider said he’s just happy to have escaped a war torn country. Aciek fled to Ethiopia, then Kenya before finally immigrating to the United States. Today, Aciek works in the seafood department at a local Wal-Mart in Richmond.

Muaz Kaisi immigrated to U.S. from Jordan in 2003. Kaisi earned a bachelors degree at Morgan State University in Maryland but thinks his labor was in vain. Kaisi has lost faith in the American dream, claiming that war and the economy has sapped any chance of him getting ahead in the near future.

Eduardo Dawson said he’s living the American dream. He is one of three co-owners at La Sabrosita Bakery. Dawson immigrated to the U.S. in 1985 from his native country, El Salvador. He credits his success to perseverance and hard work.

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