Immigrants and the American Dream

28 June 1998

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The authors of the reports - Rebecca Clark and Jeffrey Passel say the immigrants each pay an average of US$6,300 (RM24,570) in taxes compared to US$6,500 (RM25,350) by natives while the illegal immigrants pay US$2,400(RM9,360).

What about incomes? Good news: the immigrants (legal ones) earn slightly better on the average than natives - US$18,700 (RM 72,930) against US$18,100 (RM70,590); the illegals make on the average US$12,000 (RM46,800), slightly above that of refugees (US$8,300 (RM32,370)). The refugees earn the lowest among the various immigrant groups in the state of New York.

The total personal income of the immigrants was US$57.5 billion (RM224.25 billion) or 17.4 % of the US$330 billion (US$1= RM3.9) in annual personal income earned in New York last year and the year before that.

Of the taxes paid by immigrants 69% goes to the Federal Treasury, despite the fact that the government services used by immigrants are increasingly funded by state or local authorities.

Under the new law states will administer welfare progammmes themselves with block grants from Washington D.C.

Needy families may now only receive welfare payments for up to five years under the new Clinton programme in which most immigrants are restricted from receiving temporary, assistance or
other federal assistance in. their first five years in the country or until they become citizens.

There are more than one million "green card holders" in New York and more than a million naturalized citizens. Together the two groups account for 77% of the state's immigrant population. Some 16 % or 540,000 are illegal immigrants.

Because New York has always been vibrant and dynamic with a long history of receiving aliens, its population is in contrast with the rest of the nation. It has a large number of refugees and a greater number of naturalized citizens from Eastern European nations and the former Soviet Union whereas in California and Texas, most of the immigrants are from Mexico.

The Big Apple continues to attract people from the Caribbean, Latin America and increasingly from South and Southeast Asia, mainly Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Thais and Vietnamese.

New York is also a very popular choice with Malaysians besides the West Coast. In recent years, 20% of the state immigrant arrivals are from South and Southeast Asia.

Immigrants account for 17 % of the New York population California has the largest immigration population. California have a great effect on foreigners. They have come to have their share of the "American dream". Many found it for a greater number, the dream has become a mirage, and with the severe cuts in welfare it would take a longer period for immigrants to get themselves on their feet in their first years on American soil.

The benefit of a generally good education and continuing community colleges and light classes compensates for all their troubles; besides, America to them is an equalizer: they were attracted to New York and later to their parts of the United States by economic opportunities denied them in their own countries.

The immigrants had ambitions to better themselves, to succeed where their ancestors had failed.

A Malaysian couple I know has done extremely well in the real estate and letting business. The family lives in a penthouse and all their four children attended private schools and universities They are chasing greater wealth, and I have no doubt they will achieve . Their two boys and two girls - second generation Americans - should do better because they possess better education and greater opportunities.

One sad story among any tales: 49 deaf Mexican illegal immigrants, whose ordeal as virtual "slaves" in quiet Queens neighbourhood in New York shocked Americans, were last week allowed to stay in the United States by the Immigration Department. They were forced to peddle trinkets in the tube (subway or underground) and turn over their earnings to bosses who beat and abused them. They were allowed to stay because of their help in convicting their tormentors.

Eighteen "bosses" were sentenced to varying jail terms for crimes including conspiracy to commit slavery and harbouring illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, Asian Americans who have done well economically and in education (a fifth of the nation's 67,000 medical students are Asian Americans, but form only four percent of the
overall population) feel that they need affirmative action as much as any minority (Black and Hispanic) because whatever their accomplishments, they are often seen as outsiders.

A good example is Dr. John Yam, a successful doctor in Seattle who arrived in the United States three decades ago and is building a dream house, a 5000sqft contemporary building, overlooking sparkling Lake Washington.

The dust and noise from the construction set off a dispute with a neighbour (white, I presume) that quickly took on racial overtones.

"He told me to go back to Hong Kong," said Yam (June 20 issue of Washington Post). The brief bent of racial bigotory reminded him that Asian Americans need affirmative action and protection as any minority. I was surprised that Yam did not ask his white tormentor to go back to "Poland, Yugoslavia or whatever he or his ancestors came from" for I am sure he could not have been be a native American himself.

Most immigrants have done better than if they had remained at home even if they do not dress in Ralph Polo or Giorgio Armani suits, shop at Saks of Fifth Avenue, eat at Bakney's and send their children to exclusive prep schools. They could well have stayed at home and left everything to fate. But they acted to improve themselves and most did if they were prepared to work hard.

For potential immigrants, do remember that migration does not simply mean physically moving to the United States. They must also be prepared to undergo a mental change and acquire a new thinking and approach towards life, otherwise they might as well stay put where they are.

This is also true for Malaysian students, the bumiputra, in particular. They should not transport their life in Baling or Kok Lanas to New York, Boston or Stillwater.

The first 20 years of my life were spent at home (in Kok Lanas, Kota Baru, Kuala Kangsar and Kuala Lumpur), then I came to the United States, first in 1960 and many more times after that. I am now in my third year living in New York, (lived in London and in Cambridge for five years), however, I never once, even in my darkest period in solitary confinement during my five years thought that my world would exist somewhere else other than home.

Dato' Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )