Ah, the USA! Whether it's a drive on Route 66, Disneyland, the Big Apple or Hollywood, apple pie or "only in America" inventions, everyone has a nostalgic image of what America represents. And there is no image more highly rated than that of the self-made immigrant to the US. Pulling oneself up by his or her proverbial bootstraps, an immigrant with little material possessions or social status may still make something of themselves in the USA with hard work, determination, and a bit of initiative.
I know this as an immigrant to America myself, and subsequently as a US attorney practicing US immigration law. There is nothing quite like the look in my clients' eyes when I tell them that they are able to move to America. The hope and joy sprinkled with the fear of the unknown and the difficulties ahead are something immigrants have experienced since the beginning of time.
The broad immigration reforms proposed by President Obama on Tuesday should certainly have anyone wanting to move to the US jumping up and down with joy, albeit a restrained celebration at this point. If successful, and there is a definite "if", the reforms will mean, among other things, that budding entrepreneurs will have increased opportunities if they create and grow American businesses. After all, it is beneficiaries of US immigration laws who we have to thank for the existence of Google (Sergey Brin), Intel (Andrew Grove), Yahoo (Jerry Yang) and Instagram (Mike Krieger), to name just a few. Indeed, studies show that immigrants are more likely to start businesses in the US, drawing upon that infectious pioneering spirit that America inspires. The changes will also mean that US university graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics who have job offers will, in the White House's words, get a green card "stapled to their diploma". And the reforms will also allow the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to the US to gain legal status if they pay taxes, pass background checks, and meet specific requirements.
The United States is a nation of immigrants, and opposing immigration goes against the very core of America's identity. Obama's speech aptly reflected this fact: "Unless you were one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else … All those folks, before they were "us", they were "them"." Americans have a rich history of immigration from all corners of the world, and it is this diversity that makes the USA the land of opportunities where one can realise their own American dream.
The face of America is changing. Our half White, half African American president, the son of an immigrant himself, was afforded the opportunity to deliver his immigration reform speech by virtue of the Hispanic vote that tipped the scales in favour of President Obama. The so-called WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) who used to make up the bulk of American society are slowly falling in the minority. Indeed, the 2012 census shows that slightly more than 50.4% of babies being born in the USA are from minority backgrounds. As the minorities become a majority, America's immigration policies must reflect an appreciation for the richness, both material and cultural, that immigrants bring to the US.
As we await the exact details of changes ahead, there is palpable hope that the American Dream will be made available to a new generation of bright, ambitious, and hardworking immigrants, and that the 'dignity of belonging' will be afforded to those already in the United States. Even if not implemented fully, what is clear is that change is inevitable. And so is US immigration reform.
Ioana Hyde, Attorney At Law
American Immigration Law Office
88 Wood Street, 10th Floor
London EC2V 7RS