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

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.

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

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?!”



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