Whatever happened to the American Dream?

Current debates around immigration leave me increasingly concerned about the future of this country.

As a group of desperate migrants approaches our southern border with the hope of finding a better life, the fear-mongering and escalating rhetoric leave me wondering: does anyone remember how America became great?

The founding fathers of the United States all came to North America as immigrants seeking better lives. They rebelled against what they felt was a repressive regime, and created a new republic based on the principles that “All men are created equal,” and deserved the opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Many immigrants followed in their footsteps, seeking the social mobility that this new world promised. We modern Americans have all reaped the benefits.

My family is a perfect example of the success of the American Dream. All four of my grandparents were refugees (from the Middle East!) after World War I. They endured hardships we can barely imagine, yet chose to make further sacrifices to come to America and start anew, in the hope of a better life for their descendants.

The U.S. did not make it easy – Ellis Island was no picnic – but they were allowed to enter, and given the opportunity to establish themselves. My father grew up in a South Bronx tenement, supported his family from the age of 14, went to college at night, and worked his way up literally from the mail room to become president of a New York advertising agency. He put his three children through college, and one through medical school. So the Ivy-league educated professor writing this is the granddaughter of refugees.

Immigrants come to America knowing how bad life can be elsewhere. When given a chance, they can become our most hard-working, loyal, and devoted citizens. Many will defend our nation and our rights far better than those of us who grew up taking our privileges for granted. Immigrants often work jobs that Americans refuse to do – and that our economy depends upon!

Denying access to immigrants may literally be taking food out of our own mouths. We can take a lesson from history: the Ottoman Empire suffered food shortages after driving my ancestors into the desert, because no one was left to tend or harvest crops.

Where did this current fear of immigration come from? Have we grown so greedy and selfish that we’ve forgotten how to share? I acknowledge my life of privilege, and accept the responsibility of paying taxes to help those who have less. When they succeed, we all benefit, and there is more for all.

How many of the refugees approaching our southern border could be future physician leaders? Researchers? Businessmen? A special note for my fellow Christians in the “Religious Right”: Jesus preached that the greatest commandment after loving God is to Love your neighbor as yourself. And whatever we do for the least of these brothers and sisters, we do for Him (Matthew 25:40-45). Denying hospitality to people in need is not Christian.

Jesus particularly valued the innocence of children. How do you think he would feel about taking children from their parents and imprisoning them, simply because they were born in the wrong place? He was, after all, born in a stable.

Of course we need to be concerned about safety. Yes, we should screen out violent criminals. But blindly closing our borders to the very type of people who built this great nation is the wrong way to preserve and further our national interests.

The United States is a nation of immigrants, built by immigrants and their descendants. The 19th-century melting pot didn’t filter out everyone who wasn’t from northern Europe, and we are all the better for it. Repression of minorities was a factor in the downfall of more than one great empire in history. I don’t want to witness the end of the American era.

As we approach this crucial election, I hope voters will remember the fundamental values that made America great in the first place.

Victoria Kaprielian is a professor emerita of Community and Family Medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine.