On January 1st, 1982, seventeen-year-old Annie Moore was the first of 12 million immigrants to be processed at the federal immigration depot in Ellis Island.
Millions of miles from their home country, they flocked to the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ with the statue of liberty in the distance and the star-spangled banner stretching as far as the eyes could see. Possibility wafted in the air as did the promise of social mobility all encapsulated in the prettily packaged “American Dream”.
“On June 12th 2015, from a podium inside Trump Tower in Manhattan, Donald Trump kicked off his presidential campaign by declaring the American dream dead”. (The Hill)
On July 6th, 2020, US President Trump came close to ensuring it.
Whether the American Dream is dead or not is secondary to the fact that the Trump Immigration crackdown effectively makes the very act of dreaming impermissible to the tens of millions lured to its shores. Thus, committing an act of cruelty. For many can try and many may fail, but to be denied a shot in realizing it is a betrayal of everything America stands for.
The phrase penned by historian, James Truslow Adams, referred to “a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” While the interpretation of the American Dream was one that opposed the forces of capitalism to allow equal opportunity to all, the American Dream has been redefined and reinterpreted multiple times since. The interpretation this piece will use is the most common interpretation of the dream which is that “no matter who you are or where you come from, in America with hard work and sheer willpower you can attain your version of success.” What the dream looked like varied depending on the time —from being a homeowner with white picket fences, a backyard, and a family to living a life of luxury-gold enameled teeth and every possible excess. The point was that it was a simple recipe for success. The American Dream is what transformed America into a land of promise and unbridled opportunity. It was the embodiment of the American ethos which rested on meritocracy, “the belief that entrepreneurial success and corresponding upward mobility depend solely on the ability to work hard and hustle.” (The Boston Globe)
But it must be acknowledged that this version of the American Dream, apart from being deeply ingrained in the capitalistic system- is an able bodied dream, a gendered dream, a coloured dream, and now it is also an anti-immigrant dream. Trump’s America and previous reinterpretations have failed to provide an inclusive vision, which is why now more than ever before, it needs to be reimagined.
History’s commitment to dreams and all that they stand for — from Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ to the ‘American Dream’ — has reified the power of a shared collective consciousness in realizing the unthinkable.
The phrase has been redefined and weaponized as a political stratagem promised by every US President from Roosevelt’s tenant farmers to Obama’s promise of employment. Trump’s definition of the dream was Economic Nationalism, of fewer people from the “shithole countries” and more people from countries “like Norway” to realize the “pro American”(read:pro-white) goal of the country’s destiny.
Trump’s policies from America First to the recent F1 Visa ban dictates who gets to dream of promise and hope in the world’s biggest democracy today. As the anti-immigrant sentiment grows, the American dream dwindles on the horizon. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement banned F-1 visas (which allowed International students to reside in the country until they finished their education) for Universities that were going online for the next semester. “This would force students — 90% of whom would have to either transfer to schools with in-person instruction or be forced to leave the country all in the middle of a global pandemic.” (CNBC) This would also be detrimental to the US economy. International students brought $45 billion to the U.S. economy and supported over 450,000 jobs in 2018. The F-1 Visa ban was, however, reversed on July 14th but represented one of the many hardball US policies that pry immigrant fingers off the American dream. The executive order to suspend new temporary work visas through the end of the year poses the same tough choices — leave the country or face the perils of being an undocumented immigrant.
Additionally, through the America First policy, which emphasized withdrawal from international treaties to put native-born people first, President Trump turned an already fragmented society into a cesspool of xenophobia targeting the immigrant. The very people willing to work harder and longer hours —the people keeping the American economy afloat were demonized as the stealers of jobs and perpetrators of crime, national security threats who need to be shipped back to their far off lands, separated from their families by banning their visas with the anguish for a green card left to fester for 195 years. The Trump administration has been unrelenting in its goal of physically yanking the American Dream from the hands of the immigrant if only to “safeguard” it.
The result of all this has been a decline in immigration, by up to 70% in 2018. (New York Times)
Where does this leave the American Dream?
The decision to hold onto the faint glimmers of the American Dream must be made by Congress. “When the Great Depression hit, President Roosevelt’s Second New Deal led to the creation of Social Security. Confronted by staggering poverty and persistent racial injustice, President Johnson launched the Great Society, protecting against racial inequality. Congress must do the same today. There is a clear need for an independent, bipartisan body — a National Commission to Restore the American Dream — to articulate a bold strategy for bridging the country’s economic divide.” (Boston Globe)
A strategy that is inclusive and relentless in upholding the spirit of meritocracy — an America where everyone can thrive as a whole.
Because if the American Dream is worth pursuing then what makes it worthwhile is that we are all part of its becoming, that we are all part of the making of a country that cannot be truly great until it is truly inclusive.
Trisha Nagpal is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Ashoka University.