Surviving or Thriving? What It Takes for Immigrants to Succeed

An Essay by Farhat Popal, Immigrant Affairs Manager for the City of San Diego

The American dream is alive for immigrants, but the obstacles can feel nearly insurmountable — and that burden can be felt for generations.

Farhat Popal with her mother in Germany in 1991 after fleeing Afghanistan. (Courtesy Farhat Popal)

If you were to review my Google search history, the most recent phrase you would find is “top 10 personal finance books.” You might think better budgeting is part of my New Year’s resolutions, or maybe I’m looking to buy a house or save for a big trip (COVID-permitting). Part of that may be true, but I am also the daughter of immigrants — and part of the “1.5 generation” that was born somewhere else but grew up here — and that means the reason I’m devouring any and all tips on personal financial management is a bit more complicated.

For every dollar I save or invest for myself, I save or invest one — sometimes more — for my mother and extended family. 

They fled war and conflict in Afghanistan, lost their livelihoods and professions, and arrived in a completely new environment with its own gargantuan share of challenges. They rebuilt their lives from the ground up. I am deeply proud of them and of their achievements, and I am humbled to be their daughter, niece, and cheerleader. Every opportunity I have had in my life is because of their sacrifice, hard work, and resilience.

Enduring through these experiences and working twice as hard for each step forward, however, takes its toll  a toll that is felt both socially and economically. Their story is not unique, and neither are the struggles of first- and second-generation families. As we strive to achieve and maintain our American dream, I share just one perspective to help illustrate what it means to attempt to put into practice the idea of America as the land of opportunity.

First generation challenges

Without getting into the why, we will start with facts: People leave their home countries, and people choose to come to the United States. With the caveat that immigrants are not a monolithic group, what challenges might some face when they get here?

At the forefront may be an inability to communicate. As of 2018, almost half of immigrants in the U.S. are not English proficient, according to Pew Research. It takes time to learn a language, and that time increases with age of migration. This affects immigrants’ ability to access services, navigate the bureaucracy of government institutions, and understand the nuances of things like insurance policies and health care. It also increases their risk of being taken advantage of by those who wish to profit from their lack of language access. The Internal Revenue Service’s list of 2020 tax scams included one specifically targeting nonnative English speakers. A taxpayer receives a phone call purportedly from the IRS threatening jail time, deportation, or revocation of a driver’s license if they don’t provide personal or financial information.

I recently helped my mother call her auto insurance company to argue against an increase in her rate. It turns out that the company automatically estimates her mileage, not based on her history of driving but a seemingly arbitrary number, and puts the onus on the customer to call and report the actual mileage in order to accurately calculate her payment. While practices like these are not inherently nefarious, they require that you (1) understand what the statement is telling you, (2) know what to do about it, and (3) can articulate your argument. If not, you lose more of your money, essentially paying a language penalty.

First-generation immigrants may also face psychological trauma or adverse health effects from the circumstances of migration from their home country, or violence endured during their journey. This is especially true for women and girls, who face an increased risk of gender-based violence, abuse, and trafficking.

A woman with her child crosses the Rio Grande, Mexico, to reach the United States on May 19, 2019. (David Peinado/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

For those who were educated, accomplished professionals in their home country, the inability to pursue their original careers — due to language and credentialing requirements, for example — and need to take low-skilled, low-paying jobs in order to quickly bring in income may result in a loss of value and self-worth. Over time, this may also mean the inability to save for retirement or their children’s education. They may not know that they need to in the first place, and/or may not have the means to do so. And all of this may be compounded by the realities of integrating into a new culture and society that can be a difficult task in and of itself.

Immigrants overcome these obstacles and more with an intense motivation to re-establish their lives and create a brighter future for their children and loved ones. While doing so, they contribute to economic growth, spark innovation and creativity, and enrich the food, art, and musical landscape of America. But that success is not guaranteed, and it may not be enough to reach the level of prosperity and integration that results in socioeconomic advancement and the opportunities it provides. Not every immigrant is stuck in a low-paying job forever, but neither is every immigrant a successful, millionaire entrepreneur.

[Immigrants’] success is not guaranteed, and it may not be enough to reach the level of prosperity and integration that results in socioeconomic advancement and the opportunities it provides.

“1.5”- and second-generation responsibilities

The struggles of first-generation immigrants have social and economic implications for their “1.5”- and second-generation families.

Many children of immigrants spend time translating documents, making phone calls on behalf of their parents, finding relevant information, and generally providing support when needed. While native-born children may do this for native-born parents as well, the difference is that immigrant children start young, often requiring them to grow up faster. It also brings into focus the intricacies of navigating two cultures and environments that may be very different, and, at a young age, can elicit chaos and confusion at seemingly conflicting identities. I still remember what it felt like to stand in line at the then Immigration and Naturalization Service office at 5 a.m.  and then telling my elementary school friends I had an identification card that said I was an “alien.”

As we become adults, go through college and enter the workforce, we recognize the advantages that some of our classmates and colleagues had: the help with school work when needed; understanding the American educational system and how to manage key milestones like taking the SATs or college applications; lack of student loans because one’s parents were able to pay for college; the social connections that lead to internships at major companies or institutions; the ability to take unpaid internships in expensive cities because rent was taken care of; financial management and investing advice shared; vacations paid for and money set aside.

All of this lays bare just how important equitable education systems and policies are in helping immigrants reach the ladder of prosperity that seems to have twice as many rungs for us to climb. We don’t have the benefit of parents guiding us through the pathways to success in America, so we have to find that guidance elsewhere.

It also means that sometimes first- and “1.5”-generation immigrant children don’t have the space to consider pursuing their “dream” job because finding stable, secure, and dignified work becomes the priority. When your early childhood years are filled with uncertainty, and you learn responsibility at a young age, it seems too risky to pursue a career in the arts or other professions without a guaranteed income. Second-generation children and their younger siblings might have that luxury down the line once an immigrant family is more settled and established. And the “1.5”-generation might branch out and pursue their passions later in their adult lives when it seems more feasible to do so.

When your early childhood years are filled with uncertainty, and you learn responsibility at a young age, it seems too risky to pursue a career in the arts or other profession without a guaranteed income.

Dressed as Captain America, Caleb Lee Burton, from the Republic of Korea, takes the oath of U.S. citizenship with other children during a Halloween-themed citizenship ceremony, October 31, 2017 in Fairfax, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

And as we get older — and our families get older — we worry about our family’s retirement years. Were they able to save enough? What if they have a health crisis? What if they need in-home caregiving?

As a woman, I already face a gender wage gap, a “pink tax” that charges me more than men for the same item, and the need to save more money for retirement because women tend to live longer.  Statistically, I am more likely than a man to be a caregiver for my parents. As a millennial woman — but one of the lucky millennials that is currently employed — I face the reality that Social Security may not exist when I retire, and I may be paying into something that has nothing to give me back. I need to put even more aside to address this eventuality. And as an unmarried woman, I can add the inability to take part in the tax benefits of marriage and children (while also not bearing the associated costs).

How can I ensure that my family is able to continue to live a life of dignity and prosperity, while facing the reality of what it takes to guarantee that for them? Will I be able to guarantee it for myself, and my future family if I have one? 

What Statistics Don’t Tell You

You can look at the statistics of how many immigrants have bought homes or started businesses, but those statistics don’t tell you what it took to get there or the nuances of maintaining those achievements over time.

It also doesn’t tell you that immigrant children carry the emotional weight of what their families lost. It is, after all, part of their immigrant story and heritage too. Part of my identity as a first-generation immigrant who moved here at a young age is enmeshed in the opportunities I have had as a result: to get an education, to pursue work that is meaningful to me, to build a life and stand on my own two feet because I live in a country that allows me the freedom and independence to do that. And I am privileged in many ways within the immigrant community  in being documented, and in access to higher education, for example.

The part of my identity that is the child of immigrants understands what my family lost — and what they sacrificed — in the process of leaving their home and wants desperately to help them regain some semblance of it. I would not be here and would not have had any of those opportunities had they not made the journey across continents. I owe it to them to try to make life a little bit easier.

The part of my identity that is the child of immigrants understands what my family lost — and what they sacrificed — in the process of leaving their home and wants desperately to help them regain some semblance of it.

Educating myself on personal financial management and taking appropriate steps is just one way I’m trying to do that. But it’s worth asking a very important question: do we want immigrants in the United States to survive, or thrive? If the latter, what does it take to get there?

If the American dream and living in the “land of opportunity” means that immigrants are better off here than in their home countries, then perhaps that is a relatively low threshold to reach. But we have a lot of work to do if it means building generational wealth, climbing the socioeconomic ladder, developing social connections and being civically engaged  to ensure not just access to basic social services but the whole continuum of social, political, and economic integration that builds a strong foundation for success for generations to come. That’s what it looks like for immigrants to thrive in America.

My goal here is not to dive into the specifics of successful immigrant integration policies and programs, but rather to provide a personal perspective of an immigrant family’s enduring struggle to succeed. We can place the challenges immigrants face in discreet buckets of education, inclusive access, economic mobility, etc., but sometimes we fail to connect human faces and stories with those challenges, or to consider the intergenerational aspects of them.

We focus on the beauty of the American dream without evaluating what it means to achieve it and maintain it, especially today. If all I’ve done is spread an ounce more of awareness that contributes to asking better questions, and perhaps more empathetic policy responses, then I will have made my immigrant family proud.

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