The Immigrant Spirit is the American Spirit!

Sheryl Winarick
Jul 13, 2016 · 5 min read

What do Google, PayPal, eBay, WhatsApp, Tesla, SpaceX and Uber have in common?

They are all American companies founded by immigrants. In fact, more than one fourth of all US businesses and 40% of Fortune 500 companies are now being started by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Immigration is such a divisive issue — but it shouldn’t be [Inc. article added for reference Aug 25, 2016]. This COUNTRY was founded by immigrants. Over and over and over again. Our history is a continuous wave of foreigners coming to America — by choice or circumstance — for the prospect of a better life.

As long as the United States actually continues to be a land of freedom and opportunity, we will continue to attract the best and brightest from all over the world. Migrants who believe in the American dream. Who come to this country with a strong work ethic, courage, hope & grit.

That Immigrant Spirit defines the American Spirit!

And our unwavering commitment to welcome diversity sets us apart from the rest of the world. Most countries primarily identify by ethnicity, race, religion, or a common culture.

The United States of America was intentionally designed to be more inclusive, dynamic and adaptable — founded on ideals and values — like freedom and personal liberty. Our country’s motto, displayed prominently on the seal of the United States, is E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, one.” This approach has proven, over the test of time, to be an asset.

That is why the current narrative of fear is so alarming. The United States — and the world, it seems — is increasingly polarized around the issue of migration. Instead of engaging in an informed debate about the role and efficacy of government and financial systems — and even our immigration laws — people are quick to blame migrants and refugees for draining resources and taking jobs — an assumption finds no basis in fact.

We cannot let fear distort reality. That doesn’t serve our best interests. The fact that 25% of all US businesses are started by immigrants is especially significant when you consider that immigrants account for only about 13% of the US population. Immigrants create more jobs than they take. They’re a value added, not just to our economy, but to our culture.

People don’t come here to be lazy.

They come here for freedom and opportunity — for refuge — to work hard and achieve the American dream — so that their kids may achieve even more.

And this is not a new phenomenon. We just forget. Because — by design — previous waves of foreigners become woven into the very fabric of our society.

Did you know that 1 million migrants fled Ireland to come to the US in 1846 during the Irish Potato Famine? One of those migrants was the father of Henry Ford, who founded Ford Motor Company. A very American company. Incidentally, Henry’s mother was the child of Belgian immigrants. Most Irish immigrants were Catholic, and it is no coincidence that prejudice against Catholics and other immigrants reached a peak in the 1850s, with the rise of the “American” political party and the “Know Nothing” movement to “purify” American politics.

100 years later, John F. Kennedy was elected as this country’s first Catholic president. That was over 50 years ago.

In my personal experience, for the past 18 years, as an immigration lawyer,

I have had the privilege to work directly with immigrants to the US. My clients come from all different countries and cultures. They practice different religions, speak different languages, and have varying levels of education and income.

The one consistent common characteristic across the full range of these unique individuals is the desire to be better, to work hard, to seize opportunity and to make the best of the situation no matter how challenging. My clients inspire me every day! Of course there are exceptions to every rule but, generally, immigrants embody the ideals we value as “American”.

My experience illustrates something else that is important — the value of civil discourse, face to face conversation. When you sit for hours talking with people — about goals and dreams, challenges and fears — about the details of daily life — superficial labels that divide us start to fall away. Fear transforms into understanding, empathy, and compassion.

If you don’t believe me, try it!

Before you hate on migrants and refugees — before you attach group stereotypes onto individuals you never met — before you blame “those people” for taking jobs and using public benefits that WE pay for — try talking with “those people” to better understand.

They probably work hard and pay income tax. They certainly pay property and sales tax.

If they don’t speak English, they are probably trying to learn, and I’ll bet their kids speak English as well as my dad — a first generation American child of a Russian refugee — my grandfather — who lived in a mostly immigrant neighborhood in New York City and spoke Yiddish.

We know this story. We have lived this story over and over again.

This is the epic story of America.

The biggest threat to our culture does not come from the outside. It never has.

We should not only welcome immigrants, we should strive to be like immigrants, to embody in ourselves the Immigrant Spirit. That would be truly American.

Me with Papa George & Grandma Ro, whose parents were from Poland

[I delivered this piece as a TED Talk in New York City on July 12, 2016 to set the foundation for a more informed national conversation about immigration and its role in the creation and continuing evolution of this great nation. In early 2017, I will embark on a journey to engage communities around the United States in conversations about identity & belonging, inclusion & exclusion, otherness, courage, hope and fear. Various national organizations + friends, colleagues, TEDx organizers and TED-Ed Innovative Teachers who live in the communities where I’ll stop are helping to organize town hall type events and more intimate gatherings — where people who do not ordinarily have the opportunity to interact can share personal stories, concerns, hopes, and fears — and hopefully listen to each other to better understand, to deepen relationships, and to nurture our collective sense of community.]