Posted by: bkivey | 7 June 2010

Coming to America

Bill Reiter of the Kansas City Star wrote a story on 23 May on the struggles that immigrants with professional educations have in finding employment in their field when they come to the U.S. The article profiles several immigrants with professional educations that have not been able to secure employment in their fields since arriving in this country. Mr. Reiter seems to want the reader to think that there is some systemic problem with the U.S. immigration system that visits injustice on those who come here for a better life. unfortunately for Mr. Reiter, his examples undermine his premise.

One example is Kenyan immigrant and architect Charles Migwi Karugu, who came here in 2004 after obtaining a green card. Mr. Karugu works as a construction superintendent while studying to obtain his architect’s license and in his words “In every country you have to be licensed.” So here is a legal immigrant who has been able to secure a good job in a related field and who understands what it will take to work in his chosen field. Not exactly the picture of misery.

As one reads the story it becomes apparent that the only people complaining about how hard life is for professional immigrants are Americans in universities and think tanks. The immigrants cited in the article seem to understand what they were getting themselves into and don’t regret leaving their former lives behind. The major obstacle cited as working against immigrant success is language. Well, duh. Anyone who has lived or worked in another land knows that some command of the local tongue is essential, and if one is going to work as a professional then nothing less than fluency will do. Immigrants understand this. There appears to be an undercurrent of resentment on the part of people of conspicuous compassion against the people that they want to ‘help’ because those folks don’t seem to need them as much as they feel like they ought to be needed.

 Mr. Reiter writes “. . . that America, while still a nation of immigrants and the land of opportunity, remains an intensely difficult place to navigate, even for the most well-educated of newcomers.” Really? Every source that Mr. Reiter cites to illustrate this point comes from an institution that specializes in assisting immigrants. The immigrants quoted in the story don’t seem to be having any problems ‘navigating’ American society, and the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country, the vast majority of whom are unskilled, poorly educated, and with marginal English skills are demonstrably able to make a  living in this country.

Immigrating to another country and leaving everything you’ve known behind is hard. People who make that decision expect it to be hard. The fact that it’s a hard thing to do is not an indictment of a society.  There is a vast network of government, ecclesiastical, and private institutions that exist for the express purpose of easing the immigrant experience in this country, and coupled with the thriving ethnic communities found in any large American city I would say that the United States is one of the easiest places in the world to make it as an immigrant. To say that the immigration experience should be somehow free of the challenges posed by societal and cultural differences is childish and demeaning to those who come here seeking a better life and prepared to meet and overcome the difficulties that their choice entails.

At one time I worked with an engineer who had fled Russia with his wife. They had, in his words, “left on the first flight out of Moscow after the Soviet Union fell.” When they left they were both in their 60’s and all they had to show for their lives were the suitcase apiece they took with them. They were fortunate in that they were both able to practice their professional careers in the U.S., a circumstance that was facilitated by their English fluency. The gentleman related to me that he and his wife understood that if they left Russia there would be no retirement for them:  all of their savings were used to make the trip and support them while they found work, and they would not have any Social Security contributions. When I asked him if he had any regrets, he looked at me like I was crazy.

I have worked with professionally educated immigrants from Kenya, Philippines, Australia, and Iran. None of them were working in their field but they were working in the United States and they all expected that they would have the opportunity to do the work for which they had trained. Not one of them complained about how hard or unfair their life was, an attitude many Americans would do well to emulate and journalists note.



  1. Nice post.

    “Immigrating to another country and leaving everything you’ve known behind is hard. ”

    I cannot agree more with you. You have to start from zero.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and for your kind words. It has long been my contention that Americans would do well to adopt some of the ‘immigrant mentality’. I have on occasion had to work jobs that did not require my education or experience but I think that any job that puts food on the table and keeps a roof over your head is a worthwhile job.

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