The American Dream: Is it [still] alive for immigrants?

This week I’ve been sharing information about immigrants and the American Dream of business ownership and entrepreneurship. Hispanic and Latino entrepreneurship was in the spotlight as we began celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15). Today, I’ll wrap up this series with a look at whether the American Dream is still alive for immigrants.

According to a recent story at… We often hear the American Dream is dead. But whatever you think of immigration, every year people come here from around the world in pursuit of that dream.

Why it matters: People across borders and oceans still view the U.S. as the place to come to build a better life for their children.

  • And 70% of U.S. adults — across race, gender, political party and income — say the American Dream is achievable, Gallup polling found.

Three stats to chew on:

  1. Founder frenzy: 44% of Fortune 500 companies have at least one founder who is an immigrant or the child of immigrants, according to stats from New American Economy, founded by Michael Bloomberg.
  2. Upward mobility: Even the children of immigrants who fall in the poorest quarter of the U.S. end up in the middle class, Princeton researchers found.
  3. Self-made wealth: 80% of America’s millionaires — foreign- and U.S.-born — are first-generation.

The bottom line: The U.S. remains the leading destination for immigrants with big dreams. 20% of all the world’s immigrants are in the U.S., according to Pew Research Center.

Historian James Truslow Adams gave an eloquent interpretation of the American Dream in his 1931 book Epic of America:

But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but 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.

I’ll end this week with a look back at an article I shared last month, Pursuing & Achieving the American Dream. It’s a story about my grandparents and about one of my best friends, and their experiences toward and in achieving the American Dream. My grandparents are long gone, and my friend, Gustavo’s life sadly ended as a result of COVID. However, the light of the American Dream shines brightly within their families.

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Statue of Liberty

Pursuing & Achieving the American Dream

I recently read an interesting article at about what the American Dream looks like today for immigrants. The article referenced a massive study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Published in 2019, the study examined millions of father-son pairs of immigrants over the last century. The authors found that children of immigrants have higher rates of upward mobility than the children of those born in the U.S.

More significantly, they found that shifts in immigration policy and country of origin have not altered the pattern — and that it holds true whether the first generation was poor (in the bottom 25th percentile of income distribution) or relatively well-off (in the top 25th percentile).

For those who’ve personally watched upward mobility work within their families, the promises of the American Dream often feel like promises kept. Hard work and education led to significantly better outcomes for their children, with more stability for the entire family.

Immigrants Achieving the American Dream

My grandparents immigrated to America from Sicily with little money and few belongings to their name. They were moved through Ellis Island and settled in Brooklyn. They weren’t provided with government housing or given welfare checks.

Initially staying with relatives and friends of family, some they barely knew, they took menial jobs as they could find them. They saved every penny they could and as quickly as possible they secured an apartment, and then a better one until they purchased a home, and then a nicer one.

My grandfather started as a laborer and eventually became a bricklayer. My grandmother worked in the garment sweatshops, often starting work at 4AM. Literally, working their fingers to the bone. Yet, supper was on the table every day without fail.

Sundays were an open house for family and friends. My grandparents had no education. Nor did they ever own a car. All they wanted from America was opportunity and the chance for their children to have better lives than they did.

Well, they helped my Mom and I as my parents had divorced when I was a young child. We lived in their home with my two uncles. They helped one of my uncles start a business while putting my other uncle through college and medical school. And they never received, nor expected anything from the U.S. government. Yet, I had never heard them complain.

As they sailed past the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor they only wanted one thing and that was opportunity. They found it and capitalized on it without handouts, grants, welfare, etc. Truly, they wouldn’t have accepted any of it as they were very proud people. They lived for their dreams, and accepted their responsibility. I’m forever grateful for the foundation they built for our family.

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Gustavo Hernandez

A very good friend of mine, Gustavo Hernandez legally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with barely a dollar in his pocket. He worked his butt off, taking whatever job he could find and worked his way through the ranks of the restaurant industry. From doing menial jobs to waiter to assistant manager to manager to restaurant owner, he excelled at each position.

Over the years, he worked to attain U.S. citizenship and did the same for his wife, Betty who had immigrated from Central America. Betty worked at a local hospital as they started a family. Despite all the hardships they had gone through, they were determined to achieve the American Dream, and they did.

Gustavo started a restaurant with his brother. He made sure to bring in other family members along the way. In a relatively short period of time he started a second restaurant and then a third. He and Betty purchased a home, and eventually a second home while keeping the first one to rent to a friend of the family. Gustavo was already helping others within his family and community.

My wife and I were honored to be invited to attend Betty’s swearing in ceremony for her American citizenship. I’ll never forget how proud they were as they were now a family of American citizens. And like my grandparents, they never accepted anything from anyone in the way of financial assistance. I couldn’t believe how much money Gustavo spent to legally achieve American Citizenship for himself and for Betty. It was an insane amount of money!

One time Gustavo asked me why so many people that were born in America were unhappy and why so many had trouble finding and keeping a job. He said he couldn’t understand it as he had hundreds of friends that had immigrated to the U.S. and he didn’t know of any that were unemployed. In fact, some had two, three, and even four jobs!

As Gustavo’s eldest son was preparing to attend college, Gustavo came down with COVID and passed away two months later. The last time I had met with him, just days before he got sick, he informed me he had leased the restaurant where we had first met some fifteen or so years ago. He said it felt like he had come full circle.

Today, the new restaurant is open and his dream continues as his family has stepped up to keep his legacy alive. His son is still attending college. Gustavo’s influence carried on to two of his nieces who have graduated from college with degrees in mechanical engineering. The family continues to carry on Gustavo’s dream as he has helped them achieve their dream… The American Dream!

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El Chaparro Mexican Bar & Grill

As the 2nd Anniversary of Gustavo’s untimely passing quickly approaches, with tears in my eyes, I remember sitting at the bar at one of his restaurants awaiting his family after his funeral. I recall that I couldn’t help but focus on the American Flag hanging on the wall. It made me smile as I thought back to the many conversations Gustavo and I had over the years talking about America and the American Dream.

He had very strong opinion about the great opportunities in America. He was proud to have become a U.S. Citizen and that his wife, Betty did as well. We talked often about business ownership, establishing a culture within the business and the importance of people being the heart of the business.

One time we talked five straight hours about employment opportunities in America. He specifically stated, the desire to work is the first step toward achieving the American Dream.

Gustavo Hernandez was certainly proud of his heritage but he was also proud to display the American Flag, not only for himself, but also for the benefit of others. I know there are many other immigrants just like Gustavo with a similar feeling of pride.

To Gustavo, to my grandparents, and to all immigrants that have kept and who are keeping the American Dream alive, I say, thank you!

Have a great day. Make it happen. Make it count!