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Immigrants from all over the world climb up a set of suitcases to reach a house with an American flag

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What the American dream looks like for immigrants

Upward mobility is common for the millions who come to the US. But there’s a lot more to the story.

Over the past 40 years, the prospect of achieving or maintaining a foothold in the middle class has faded for millions of Americans. Blame stagnant wages, the ever-increasing cost of living, massive student debt, and the narrowing of once all-but-guaranteed routes — like, say, a good union job — to economic stability. Millennials, as a whole, are the first generation predicted to be worse off than their parents. A 2017 study found that a staggering 90 percent of children born in 1940 earned more than their parents did at age 30; for children born in 1984, that percentage has declined to just 50 percent.

But there’s a complicated, competing reality at work for recent immigrants to the United States and their children, the majority of whom are currently living some version of the American dream. Or, more precisely, the upward mobility component of that dream: the idea that hard work will lead to increased stability and class position for the next generation.

A massive study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, published in 2019, 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 US. 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).

What happens after that second generation is more complicated, but that initial immigrant upward mobility, when gains are acutely felt? It’s still there, even as the once-consistent class mobility of Americans three, four, five, or six generations removed from their ancestors’ original migration has stalled.

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. There’s a lot more to these stories, however, particularly to the way second-generation immigrants conceive of their place on the class ladder.

Speaking with first- and second-generation immigrants from more than a dozen “sending” countries over the past month, it’s clear there’s a shared desire to have bigger, more nuanced discussions of the immigrant experience of the American dream — conversations that attend to the specific contexts that so often get swallowed within the label of “immigrant,” alternately portrayed as a problem (overwhelming the border, sucking up governmental resources, taking American jobs) or a model success story, with very little, if any, attention to the paths that open or close to migrants from different home countries and circumstances, from different racial and educational backgrounds, with profoundly different levels of societal and governmental support.

Between 2005 and 2050, the US is projected to add 117 million people as a result of new immigration — a stunning 82 percent of the population growth. That’s 67 million incoming immigrants, 47 million of their children, and 3 million grandchildren. These new immigrants and their descendants will shape the future of this country. They know, arguably better than those who are native born, where the roadblocks to stability are located: where the pain resides, where the trajectory loses steam, where outdated hierarchies and good old-fashioned racism work to exclude them. They see what’s lost every time the narrative of the middle class remains, implicitly or not, the narrative of the white middle class.

As a second-generation immigrant named Elle told me, immigrants are just enough removed from the American status quo that leads people to believe they have a right to a place in the middle class. They can, in her words, “see the entire landscape of potential outcomes, upturns, and downturns.” There’s invaluable perspective there. Below, Elle and six other first- and second-generation immigrants share what they’ve come to understand about the middle-class American dream.

Dharushana Muthulingam, age 38

Family moved from Sri Lanka to Los Angeles via the UK in the 1980s

My parents are originally from Sri Lanka. They moved to the UK, where I was born; then the still-ongoing civil war broke out. Most of my extended family made it to various refugee camps and then settled all over the globe.

Money was short growing up, and the shortage was a source of discord. It was explicit that financial security was the priority, and the jobs that achieved security were physician, engineer, lawyer. My parents owned several small businesses, like many immigrant parents, but when they imagined the success of their children, it was one of these “respectable” professions. It was security: mine and theirs. Like most of the world, they do not have a 401(k) — children are the retirement plan. I remember being rebuked if I said I wanted to be a rock star or mailman. I said I wanted to be a writer, and was told I could be a writer after I became a doctor.

A hand stamps an immigration form next to a graduation hat, a set of house keys, and an American passport

So I went to college. I went to medical school. I got married. I had two children. I have a mortgage. I bought a minivan. Check, check, check. I worked very, very hard. My brain and body and soul broke multiple times. American medical training is stupidly hellacious. It’s thoroughly populated by either individuals from multigenerational physician families — they navigated the culture with ease, had their rent covered — or the other strivers like me, trying to mobilize out of their class, scraping together the fees to take tests and do applications. I went to some of the best institutions in the world, where I spent a lot of time crying in the financial aid office.

In order to use education as a tool for class mobility, well, you get educated in the process. I deeply absorbed the Western liberal ideology of the educated middle class. I absorbed the particulars of the American caste system while going deeply into debt for the process, looking at my brown femme face in the mirror every day while trying to convince others to pronounce my long foreign name.

When we say “middle-class experience in the United States” usually we are talking about a very particular white middle-class experience in the United States. That is the one on TV, the one that runs the universities, the cultural experiences, and brokers the power. It is weird because growing up in California suburbs, there were actually a lot of middle-class people of color, so my lived experience is different, but I embraced the pop culture portrayal of the American suburb. It’s insidious, divisive, and warping and leads to toxic shit like the “model minority” fallacy and respectability politics that degrades your soul.

It’s important for people to know that Asian immigrants are very heterogeneous. Many of the people who got here in the ’70s and ’80s for the first nonwhite expansion of immigration to the US since the Chinese Exclusion Act were professionals: doctors, engineers, grad students. But the majority of Asian immigrants are not necessarily professionals or highly educated.

I am deep in a midlife crisis reevaluating everything I thought about my goals to get in the middle class. But you know, sometimes I am fucking proud. In the remote LA suburb where I grew up, we would get doughnuts. My dad would chitchat with the owner, who was a Laotian refugee. They would each brag about their kids. The doughnut store guy’s kid was at Yale Law or something. and this was supposed to be it. The American dream. Two guys who fled war — and my dad, who grew up as a subsistence farmer in a thatched-roof hut, whose mother could not read — these guys sent their kids to the most powerful institutions in the most powerful country. You still sometimes want nothing more than to make your parents happy, because you know on a very deep level how much they have struggled. You want to bring them all the riches and prizes of the world.

Ana Maria, age 45

Parents arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico in the early 1960s

We didn’t talk about our class position. Growing up, when my brother or I asked for toys, restaurant visits, candy, we got used to hearing “no hay dinero” — there’s no money for that.

Our parents didn’t talk to us about aspirational goals; work is just what you did to keep yourself alive. My mother’s nickname for me as a young girl was “mi trabajadora,” essentially “my hard little worker.” In my family, making it meant working in an office. When my mother described her goals for me, they amounted to going to college and getting a job in an office. To this day, though I lead product, design, and engineering teams to build software and websites used by millions around the world, I describe my job as “in an office, with computers.”

I see myself constantly fighting a battle between Enough and More.

On the side of Enough: the realization that my annual contribution to retirement accounts is seven times my family’s annual income. Haven’t I made it? And then there’s the Enough prescribed by bloggers and influencers who want us to set aside the rat race and the comparison game, accompanied by the creeping feeling that I embody too many “other” categories in the world of tech bros — too female, too brown, too Mexican, too old, too nontechnical, “too nice” — to keep advancing.

On the side of More: the driving need to use my gifts and brain and skills. The desire to be the role model I never had — the Latina in tech, in a large leadership role — to inspire the younger Ana Marias out there. The drumbeat in my head after years of coaching, therapy, accountability partners, and an encouraging husband is: Why not me?

And in the messy middle between Enough and More: an inkling that I might check the right boxes with all my “otherness” and that may open a door, but do I want to go through that door? The recognition that I can dream of wanting more only when I frame it as focused on other people — retirement with my husband, support for my mother, giving to causes, being in a position to lift up other Latinas — which makes me look at myself with a raised eyebrow and a “seriously?!”

Melody, age 25

Parents arrived in Columbus, Ohio, from Ghana in the 1990s

My parents were recipients of President Clinton’s visa lottery. My dad came to the United States first, at the beginning of 1997, and me and my mom arrived in May of that same year. They chose Ohio because they had a lot of friends who had also emigrated from Ghana who lived there.

Both of my parents had to start over when they came to the United States. My mom went to nursing school and became an RN. My dad worked as a forklift operator at the Limited for 10 years, and then he went back to school and got his nursing degree. Me, my brother, and my parents lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Columbus, Ohio. When I was in third grade, my parents bought a $300,000 house in a suburb with a great public school system. A lot of their friends who immigrated also ended up buying homes and moving to well-off suburbs.

I feel like my parents bought into the idea of the American dream, and perhaps still do a little bit. They were able to achieve that dream: Buy a home in a nice suburb with a good school system for their three kids, send us to college, and give us a good life.

But I do think [that] as we all get older, we realize the other factors that played a role in this success. My parents didn’t have to pay for child care; there was another Ghanaian woman who lived in our apartment complex, and she would watch me and my brother when my parents weren’t home. They had a strong support system since many of their friends immigrated to Ohio from Ghana. My parents are really religious, so the church was also a site of refuge for them. Ohio has a fairly low cost of living compared to other parts of the country, and once my mom graduated from nursing school, she got a union job, which pays very well and has amazing benefits. My father’s job at the Limited also paid a decent wage and had good benefits, including free clothes gifted by the company.

I think the African immigrant experience as a whole isn’t discussed, and when it is, there’s not a ton of discussion about the systemic factors that contribute to the success of African immigrants and their children. We don’t have the generational trauma that Black Americans carry with them, which, in my opinion, makes a huge psychological difference.

Christina Hernandez, age 29

Grandmother arrived from Cuba pregnant with Christina’s father in the early 1960s

My mom comes from a solidly middle-class white family with roots in the US going back to the late 1800s or early 1900s. My dad’s side of the family is from Cuba. My abuela [immigrated] to Miami after the Cuban revolution because she was pregnant with my father and didn’t want him to be born in a communist country. My abuelo followed about a year later as an asylum seeker. My grandparents were white, middle-class Cubans.

My parents are both educators who met as high school teachers and are now both professors. When I was a kid, we moved to New Jersey so that my dad could do his PhD; my mom made sure we chose a town that had really good public school ratings. That meant that they couldn’t afford a house, and we lived in a two-bedroom apartment. We lived in the same apartment for about seven years, and we always had enough to eat, but fun stuff was really carefully budgeted. As an 8-year-old, I was very aware of financial stresses and my parents’ deteriorating marriage.

A girl climbs a ladder, with a map of the United States dotted with houses in the background

My parents instilled the idea that working hard was the answer. My dad is a perfectionist, and so am I. After my dad got his professor job and my parents split up, my dad remarried and was able to buy a house when I was about 12 or 13. My mom didn’t buy property until I was in college, and it’s a condo rather than a house. I think I absorbed messages about how the choices we make financially and for our education and about children ... have repercussions that can last decades.

I also don’t want to make the choices my parents made. I don’t want to rush into having children — I’m now older than both of them were when I was born — and I have been very aggressive about paying off debt. I have internalized the message that middle-class status is nonexistent or extremely precarious, and as a result, I’m frugal to a fault.

I have a very strong sense of what I think is “enough,” and my impression moving through the world as an adult is that my idea of enough is a lot less than what other white people think is enough. For me, stability is having a retirement fund and health insurance, and enough savings that I can replace my laptop or buy a plane ticket without any notice when a relative is sick or dying. Middle-class life means that I do now go on vacation, but even then, my boyfriend and I would rather go backpacking in the wilderness than visit a resort.

Rajika Bhandari, age 50

Arrived in North Carolina from India for graduate school in the 1990s

When you’re an immigrant coming from another country where you may be middle class or upper-middle class and privileged in many ways, you lose that status when you move to the US. All of that social capital that you and your family may have accumulated over the years, and that opened doors for you in your home country, that was your safety net — that no longer exists. No one in your new country knows what your background is. The new culture doesn’t know what to make of you. Back in India, my family was by no means wealthy, but we had a high social status because of education, because my parents had been to some of India’s top schools and colleges. That carried with it a real weight but was not acknowledged or known in the US.

I’ve noticed this within my community, but I also think this is even more true for other immigrant groups: There’s a desire to align with the dominant group in the US, which is white Americans. For Indian Americans, this is very much about getting the right degrees, sending your kids to the right college, living in the right neighborhoods — this desire to align with a dominant group that represents that middle-class status that you’ve lost. During the Black Lives Matter protests last year was the first time I saw South Asians and Indian immigrants standing up along with their Black friends. For the first time, the blinders came off, and there was this realization that we might think that we’re upper-middle class, we’ve obtained the American dream, our kids go to Ivies, but in the eyes of the majority, we’re just another brown person.

If you talk to the average American, there isn’t a good understanding of higher education and the immigration pipeline. They will not know that international students contribute $45 billion to the US. There might be an understanding that there are these students in the US, but it’s that they’re taking away “our” seats in college and then in the workplace.

Writing my book [America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility] really came out of trying to fill this knowledge gap, especially because the legal pathway to citizenship is so poorly understood: how challenging it is, how much it controls the life of an individual who’s going through it. People think it’s not a big deal — they’re following the legal pathways, they’re living these nice lives, but what it has taken for people to get on these pathways, to get to these points, it’s staggering. There’s this feeling of being straitjacketed, you can’t move, you can’t breathe, otherwise you’ll fall out of legal status. It’s a slow-level suffocation.

Ashley Valdez Jones, age 27

Mother became a naturalized American citizen in Nogales, Arizona, when she turned 18

My father was Leave It to Beaver white Irish Catholic. His side of the family has been in the country for generations. My mom grew up in Nogales, Arizona, a town that straddles the US-Mexico border. Her family had lived in the States for years, but my grandma had all 13 of her children across the line in Nogales, Sonora, because she didn’t trust American doctors. We joke that she reverse anchor-babied. My mom became a naturalized American citizen when she turned 18.

According to my dad, we were “comfortable.” He didn’t talk about class explicitly but focused on middle-class accomplishments: building a home, international family trips, a boat. My mom talked about class only to explain why her side of the family had less and why so many of my cousins wore my hand-me-downs. As a child, my understanding was that all Mexican people were poorer than all white people, because that’s how things shook out in my family.

The story I got was that my mom escaped poverty, and being Mexican, by marrying a white guy. We were never close to her side of the family, and as a child, I thought it was because we weren’t like them and implicitly above them in class. The message I internalized was that the only way to achieve the American dream was to become white.

Elle, age 30

Immigrated to New York from Bangladesh via the Middle East in the mid-1990s

We started out in a tiny New York City apartment that was crawling with cockroaches, so I had the general sense that money was tight. Everyone we knew at the time was also a part of the immigrant community, also making ends meet, so I never really felt like we were under pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” in any particular way. It was never explicitly stated to us as kids, but looking back, it was obvious that my dad as the breadwinner had the goal of advancing his career in order to make the kind of money doctors can make in the US.

I had absolutely no class consciousness until we left New York City for the suburbs. That was my introduction to the hallmarks of American middle-class life: bowling alley birthday parties, sleepover invites, Lunchables and string cheese, minivans, playsets in the backyard, after-school extracurriculars, piles of presents at Christmas, summer camps, annual stays at the lake house or a beachfront property. All of this confused me since my family’s social circle still cleaved pretty strongly to immigrant communities where none of this stuff mattered, and yet I still wanted it. I got very used to hearing “no”: no to the Barbie Dreamhouse set, a definitive no to all the sleepover invites, an “absolutely not” to most processed American food. Disney was the only thing that cracked through.

The long-term indicator of middle-class comfort was getting to eat out at restaurants more regularly. That was absolutely unheard of for our family for many years, but it morphed into a treat and then to a natural cost to account for whenever we were not at home. What used to be a major restriction and stressor is now a relief and a joy. All aspirational goals and material markers of progress aside, I don’t think we ever felt like “we made it” until we became US citizens. That took almost two decades of switching visas and seeking employer sponsorship and winding our way through the immigration process that no born American has to think about.

You could definitely make the argument that we followed the American dream to a T, just by looking at the ways our spending habits changed over time. We went from a used car to a nicer car to several cars; from shittier apartments to nicer apartments to a house. Rather than buying into the American dream wholesale, however, I think we were just following the path parallel to the American dream that many South Asians who aspire to become expats have internalized: Study and/or work hard so you can get out at all costs.

That mentality is obviously not unique to immigrants alone, but it is distinct to us in that “getting out” at its core has very little to do with attaining the material markers of progress most Americans would associate with a successful middle-class life. Many of our contemporaries, both my parents’ age and my own, are happy to be “out” in any way, shape, or form. The assumption is that whatever is “out there” (Western Europe, North America, more prosperous parts of Asia, the Gulf) is automatically better than what is “in here” (your country of origin).

There is truth to this, of course, but as an idea, it can end up being as hollow as the American dream. People realize too late what they’re giving up by moving away, or that the life they lead abroad is much harder than they anticipated.

Something I have to remind myself a lot — because no discussion of the American middle class seems to say so — is that no one’s journey to the middle class is guaranteed or even at all certain. Perhaps it feels more obvious to me simply because there are members of the immigrant community who are never able to make their professional degrees count in their new homes, or people who predate our arrival in this country whose ceaseless hard work never translated into salaried or white-collar jobs that might let them rest a bit more. Today, I think the precariousness of the middle class is a pretty universal phenomenon regardless of which path one took to achieve middle-class status. That might just be the effect of trying to be middle class in America — it swallows you whole.

If you’d like to share your experience as part of the hollow middle class with The Goods, email or fill out this form.

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