Immigrant Country
January 15, 2012 1:13 PM   Subscribe

For immigrants or those who know immigration stories: why did you immigrate to the USA? (the more specific, the better)

I'm doing a project illustrating how immigrants often project their desires and dreams into the USA, which functions like a "blank-slate" land. I need to know more detailed reasons for why individual people move to the US. Thanks.
posted by facehugger to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Russia's government and economy were completely compromised by corruption and organized crime and casual anti-Semitism was the norm.
posted by griphus at 1:17 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I fell in love with an American woman. BUT I could have moved her to the UK more easily and (in hindsight) with better prospects, family ties, and other good stuff for us both. I did what I did because I had an almost lifelong love affair with the US that probably started with the Little House on the Prairie books, but escalated into studying American literature and traveling here. The US seemed more dramatic to me, bigger in every way, and romantic. I still see that side of America and it's still real to me, I still love road trips and that sort of "anything can happen" sense, but FWIW we're going back to the UK after almost 10 years. It's not so cool when "anything can happen" includes losing your job, your home, and dying in the street with no healthcare."
posted by crabintheocean at 2:15 PM on January 15, 2012 [9 favorites]

I know three people who moved to the US for purposes of marrying an American. One of those would have never come otherwise and probably regrets having moved here. There's some small chance the second would have (I think he met his spouse while working temporarily in the US, so might have been inclined to return). The third, who I don't know as well, strikes me as the only one remotely likely to view moving to the US as having anything to do with desires and dreams. I think the first two would have been equally happy (or happier) for their partner to move to their home countries. In the third case, there were clear advantages to moving to the US (not being a refugee, more stable political situation, etc).

Basically, I've been socialised to view immigration in a way not compatible with the assumptions of your project.
posted by hoyland at 2:18 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also want to add that I'm totally in agreement with hoyland's point as a general principle. I work with immigrants a lot and for most it's a much smarter and more hard-nosed decision than mine. I think I'm unusual, I have a tendency towards the grandiose that is not representative!
posted by crabintheocean at 2:22 PM on January 15, 2012

Are you looking for people who have immigrated recently, or historically? For my great-grandparents, it was anti-semitism.
posted by Melismata at 2:33 PM on January 15, 2012

My grandfather came to the US from Lithuania to avoid be drafted into the czar's army. (He promptly joined the American army, to the annoyance of the family and neighbors who had chipped in to buy his ticket to New York.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:37 PM on January 15, 2012

I think my dad may have viewed America as a "blank slate" land when he was younger, but the reasons we stayed and applied for the green card are 1) Our job requires us to be a bridge in a transnational supply chain; people [in the US] treat you differently when you say you're from NJ instead of Tokyo, plus you get to work closer to and understand your customers better, 2) It's somewhat easier to be an entrepreneur here, 3) I was born here. Woops.
posted by xiadagio at 2:41 PM on January 15, 2012

My (Pakistani) father migrated to the US after studying engineering in Germany. The (American) father of one of his university friends offered them both jobs after graduating. His intention was to work in the US for a while, then move back to Pakistan. In his case, "a while" ended up being over a decade, time enough to have my siblings and myself.

A generation later, all of us kids went to college in the US, and all but me ended up staying there. My mother, who had no desire to live in the US, ended up moving back there a few years ago to be closer to her kids.

I know a lot of immigrants to the US. Most of them moved for very specific economic gains, better job opportunities.
posted by bardophile at 2:42 PM on January 15, 2012

I'm not clear on what you mean by a "blank slate" land, but if this implies starting all over with no history, then that's not my experience at all. Most of the desi immigrants I knew maintain strong ties with their home countries. In fact, a lot of times, the socio-economic class structures from the home countries are reproduced in the US.
posted by bardophile at 2:45 PM on January 15, 2012

My great grandparents moved here to avoid the Russian pogroms of Jews. I think historically, a lot of people are moving "away from", and where they move to is often a matter of who'll let them in, combined with where there may already a community of immigrants from their home country.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:47 PM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I moved to the US because there was a job I wanted to take. Now that I've tired of the job, I'm moving back to Canada.

I didn't have any particular desire to move to the US. As a Canadian, honestly I would rather have stayed home. However, the very specific thing I wanted to do just so happened to be in the USA, so off I went.
posted by crazycanuck at 3:02 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My great-grandparents left Jonava, Lithuania around 1899 due to ongoing anti-Semitism and general social instability/poor opportunity/etc. - most of the forward-thinking types in their community were gone by 1905, either to the US or to South Africa. It's potentially significant to note that their economic circumstances were much poorer in the US (for the next two generations) than they had been in Lithuania. And it's certainly significant to note that the only first cousins I know of were killed by the Nazis in France and Eastern Europe. Anti-semitism was not a "crisis" factor until a little bit before they left - an omnipresent thing in the culture generally, yes, but day to day life was not about avoiding pogroms. Actually, people had been leaving (Zionist movement) for at least a generation before my family started doing it, and the US wasn't considered a great place to go until pretty late in the game. Yes, they ended up on the Lower East Side of NYC. On Orchard Street and everything!

My great-grandparents (another set) came to the US from Galway, Ireland, around 1890, because it was significantly easier to make money and be successful. Only about a third of their friends and family seem to have come here, and they kept up strong ties (my grandmother was visiting Ireland up to the 1980s, hanging out with first and second cousins, who all knew each other as they were growing up, despite being born on opposite sides of the Atlantic.) I know of at least four trips by either my great-grandparents or my grandparents to Ireland throughout that period (1910-1987,) and I'm sure there are many more we haven't stumbled on, given how random the stumbling has been - it basically just took a pause during the Great Depression and WWII, and started back up in the late 1940s. My great-grandfather's economic situation was significantly increased by moving to the US - he built a nice big house, his son went to law school and ended up teaching at Georgetown, etc. And yes, the Irish great-grandparents were Catholic and ended up in Boston.

My step-aunt came to the US from the Philippines in the 1980s because, as far as I can tell, she'd get more money working as a nurse here. She married an American, but that wasn't her objective - and really, for the most part, my step-uncle has become far more integrated into her family and culture than most first-generation immigrants ever integrate into US culture. He learned Tagalog to flirt more effectively with the nurses at work, and ended up marrying one of them. I assume that the political and economic chaos in the Philippines was a (huge) contributing factor, but I've honestly never heard her mention it. She's still in regular contact with extended family back home. And yes, my step-aunt (and everyone I know from her family) came to the Los Angeles area.

My family is highly stereotypical, really. At least when it comes to "why did you move" and "where did you go."
posted by SMPA at 3:08 PM on January 15, 2012

Basically, I've been socialised to view immigration in a way not compatible with the assumptions of your project.

To clarify this comment, I'm the child of the first person.
posted by hoyland at 3:17 PM on January 15, 2012

Oh, and yeah, it's not really a blank slate at all. My Litvak relatives moved into an area full of Litvaks (many specifically from their village;) my Irish relatives moved into an area full of other Irish people; my aunt found a job with so many coworkers from her country that it made sense for the random local white guy to learn their language in order to romance them.

They also had very specific ideas about what America was supposed to be - it was going to be welcoming (or at least have radically diminished prejudice based on their particular ethnicity and religion,) and have a much more stable and yet mobile social structure (no castes, no "you didn't go to the right school so you have no future,") and there was a much higher general standard of living, and they were all familiar with very basic (and often distorted) concepts: Democracy, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, the Statue of Liberty, blue jeans, decent public works. I've noticed the same thing with the exchange students I've met: America has a really clear shape and size and weight in their heads. It's not about transforming the self and starting over, it's about joining something in progress.

Many of my relatives ended up becoming rather politically active, in fact - they had a lot of ideals they fully expected America to live up to, and weren't shy about noticing things weren't right and doing something about it. Especially the first generation born in the US: their parents taught them to have very high expectations of what life should be like, and were shockingly supportive of their participation in political movements that would have gotten them shot back home. And I mean that really literally.
posted by SMPA at 3:22 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came because I got offered a great job here, when the job market in my home country was dire in my particular industry (still is). It was in no way a "blank slate" move. I was not escaping from anything, since I come from another first world country. My desire was for a better standard of living than my home country, for a job I enjoyed, and to explore a new and beautiful country. I got all of these things. I felt that this would be a temporary move because I am so politically at odds with the US mainstream, but here I am well over ten years later. I am happy for now, mainly because of my job, but I am not certain I will stay here forever, because frankly this is a terrible country to grow old in (healthcare).
posted by Joh at 3:47 PM on January 15, 2012

I moved to the US (specifically, the Bay Area) because American culture appealed to me. By that I mean openness, friendliness, 'community spirit', inclusiveness. Also a certain kind of very earnest, almost naive honesty. This was relative to German culture, which is more closed-off, based on exclusion of outsiders, elitism and sarcasm. I actually found my assumptions about American culture to be true and feel very welcome here and so far I have no desire to return to Germany. Your 'blank slate' theory rings true to me.
I realize that this only applies to my specific circumstances, i.e. upper middle class academic migration from Europe, and is not at all representative of the overall immigrant experience in the US. Many people probably migrate here because they have no choice, not because US culture appeals to them.
posted by The Toad at 4:37 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I moved here because I got a great job offer and America had always appealed to me as a place to live. I love it here - but I always knew I wouldn't stay here long term, for the reasons other people have mentioned. It feels like this would be a terrible place to be old, or poor, or ill, compared with other countries I have lived in. An unsympathetic place.
posted by yogalemon at 4:57 PM on January 15, 2012

I moved to the United States when my father received a scholarship to do post-grad studies at an American University. The program that brought him there was something specific offered by the American government for European science students, but the name escapes me right now.
He stayed because he got a good job after university.
The economy at the time in our home country was bad, so my dad became part of that famous"brain drain" that so many complain about.
That's why we moved. Brain drain.
posted by msali at 5:39 PM on January 15, 2012

This will be a lot of random rambling, but here goes:

Russia's government and economy were completely compromised by corruption and organized crime and casual anti-Semitism was the norm

I'm from Ukraine, but this applies too. My mom was a teacher and teachers just didn't get paid for months at a time because the government had no money. Pretty much if you didn't start your own business selling things illegally, you couldn't really make a decent living doing a regular job.

You had to wait in line at the grocery store for hours and hours starting at 5am in order to buy things like milk, butter, eggs, bread, sugar, and sometimes when the line came to you, they ran out, so you just have to go back tomorrow and hope that you'll be luckier. There was one time my grandmother was saving up eggs and flower for a few weeks to make a birthday cake for someone. Well, someone accidentally dropped the carton of eggs and they broke. You can't go out and buy another one - no cake for that birthday year. The people working at the stores would also save the best cuts of meat for themselves, would dilute the sour cream with water - nothing was regulated.

Anti-Semitism was casual in the sense that most people didn't care enough to hurt/attack Jews (as long as you weren't outwardly Jewish), but it was nearly impossible for Jews to get into certain schools or get certain jobs, even if they were more qualified than other people who were accepted or hired. I remember one time in school (I was ~7?), the teacher made every kid who was Jewish get up, just so everyone could look at us (wtf, right?).

Better quality of life here. My mom is a teacher here as well, yet she can afford to travel places now, can afford to buy clothes instead of wearing hand me downs, sewing and knitting her own clothes, or mending holes in socks and stockings.

Public transportation actually has a system here, and you don't have to wear a scarf over your mouth to filter out the pollution in the air.
posted by at 5:42 PM on January 15, 2012

I hope you're realizing that the answers you're getting here contradict your hypothesis. America's "sales pitch" to immigrants has been:

Greater freedom (political/personal/religious)
Greater economic opportunities (higher salaries/higher standard of living/easier to start a business/possibility of getting rich)

People aren't projecting their own beliefs about America onto a "blank slate"-- they're accepting the popular beliefs about what America has to offer (whether you think they're true or false/worthwhile or not) and coming to the US based on those promises.
posted by deanc at 5:43 PM on January 15, 2012

My ideal career position was very specialized and didn't exist in the country where I was living. So I had to move to another country be able to do it. Having to live in the USA was a point against moving, not a positive.
Now, having made really good friends here over the years, they are my primary reason for liking it here. US society still feels fairly backwards and to offer less freedom and less social mobility. There are things to like about it, of course, but they're not what brought me.

I get the impression some of your assumptions are coloured by the fairy tale that Americans are taught about America's appeal to the rest of the world.
posted by -harlequin- at 6:36 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I know a woman who came to the US as an au pair then fell in love with an American, got married, and stayed.
However, the couple intends to move back to her country of origin when they plan on starting a family. That way the child/children can grow up near her family. Said family would have a more active role in the child's life and would offer more help to the parents.
posted by Neekee at 6:54 PM on January 15, 2012

My family moved to the US from Hong Kong in 1985. We specifically moved because of the 1984 announcement of Hong Kong's return to mainland China in 1997, and we were able to be sponsored by relatives who were already here. My parents also thought that my sisters and I would benefit from learning English at a native level and the educational opportunities in the U.S. The 1984 announcement is a defining moment in the Hong Kong diaspora, there was a significant influx of immigrants to places like Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Toronto.

We were middle- to upper-middle class in Hong Kong and pretty much stayed that way here in the US, but both of my parents worked jobs that were probably a few social classes below once we immigrated. For instance, my father was a successful businessman in Hong Kong, but here in the U.S. he worked as a clerk in a clothing shop because he wasn't able to learn English. While upward mobility is a real thing for immigrants, a certain amount of downward mobility can happen as well. For us, my family was able to support itself because of the jobs they were able to find in the US, but we always had the backup of the family business and real estate ventures in Hong Kong.
posted by so much modern time at 7:39 PM on January 15, 2012

Englishman here. Moved here after meeting my US wife. I would have preferred to have remained in Italy, where I lived most if my adult life, but we decided it was considerably easier for me to find work in the US than for her to find work in Italy. I would move back in heartbeat though if we could work it out. E.g. a lottery win!
posted by NailsTheCat at 8:12 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My husband immigrated to the US because he had a brother already working here and he was reasonably assured that he could work enough to survive and support his parents at the same time. The country he was born in is/was dangerous and war stricken and the country he was residing in had undergone a regime change that decimated the family coffers, so there was a need to emigrate and the US seemed the best logical choice. The choice had nothing to do with US propaganda and everything to do with logic and family. If he had been able to immigrate to Europe or Asia, he would have. I'm just lucky he endedup here or we'd have never met and married.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 9:09 PM on January 15, 2012

My parents came to Canada as economic migrants from the UK as the class structure there was limiting them (and they recognised it would limit their children too). After six months they moved back to the UK, realised how much they can grown used to North America's modernity and returned to Canada rather quickly. My father has always wanted to live in Florida however, he visits the US frequently (he's been to Washington but never Ottawa) and it holds a special place in his heart. When I married an American/canadian he thought he might get citizenship via me, unfortunately, neither myself or my children have any intention of applying. Everyone else I know that moved to the US ended up leaving, usually for Canada, often citing the healthcare or education costs (both for elementary and post secondary).
posted by saucysault at 10:29 PM on January 15, 2012

The fact that you have come up with your conclusion before you started conducting interviews strikes me as a problem.
posted by sophist at 12:07 AM on January 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

the USA, which functions like a "blank-slate" land.

As others have said, this is a very problematic/simplistic assumption that you're working from that really doesn't necessarily apply in many cases. In fact, I would suggest that you consider the converse of this assumption: that given the global presence of American popular culture (and American imperialism in other ways), immigrants may very frequently come to America with a whole host of ideas (whether accurate or not) about what America is like culturally, socially, economically, racially, historically, politically, etc. In other words, it's actually the opposite of "blank-slate" land.
posted by scody at 12:14 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My Mexican family came here because of money and opportunity. That's it, really. In fact, the history of my family is one of going back and forth across the US-Mexico border. Always returning to their homeland when they can.

My paternal grandmother was born in California while her parents were working on a farm. The family then moved back to Mexico. She raised a family in Mexico then moved the entire family back when my father was a teenager. My grandma is unique - she hated Mexico and never wanted to return, and never really did. At times she and her family were near starvation there and so for her Mexico was an inhospitable place.

My father, conversely, has never attached himself to the US. He is a permanent resident of almost 50 years. Refusing to get citizenship and, in all that time, never picking up much English either. As kids, our parents dragged us every summer to Mexico. My parents, now retired, spend a lot of time in Mexico and are about to permanently move back. For them the US was ever only a place for them to raise their kids, to earn a decent wage. They have never thought of it as home but rather the opposite - as somewhere that has dragged them away from their home and from their families.
posted by vacapinta at 12:46 AM on January 16, 2012

My ex-husband emigrated here because of me. Although he did want to leave his 3rd-world country of origin (not only because of the economics, but because he does not think highly of his compatriots), the U.S. was definitely not his first choice of destination. He would have much rather have immigrated to Germany, which is really his "dream land."

A twist on your "blank slate" notion is the problem that many university-educated immigrants face, which is that the language barrier can, for all intents and purposes, erase their educational and employment history and they have to start over from zero. My ex was in his mid-30s when he started learning English and came to the U.S., and I think he is not a stellar language-learner to boot. 15 years on, he is only just now achieving a level of fluency where he could consider being employed in his former field (economics and finance). During that time he's been working mostly unskilled/semi-skilled jobs and slogging his way through a U.S. bachelor's degree. He turns 50 next week and is only just now getting to a point in his career that most native-born 'muricans reach when they're in their mid-20s.
posted by drlith at 4:58 AM on January 16, 2012

My father came here in 1960 to try out American life as a lark. He had uncles and aunts who were earlier, established immigrants, so he felt relatively supported. And he had a family-owned company, good job waiting for him back home in Norway. When he married my American mother, they moved to back to Norway. She hated it there, so they moved back after a year. Basically, it was divorce or move to the U.S. He chose the U.S., and ended up doing just as well or better career-wise than he would have in Norway.

Frankly, I wished from an early age that they'd stayed there. My life would have been a lot better.
posted by RedEmma at 9:01 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

My maternal Grandma moved from Mexico to the US as a teenager when my Mom was a baby. Grandma's sisters were already here, but I'm not 100% sure they sponsored her (this was the late 1940's).

My paternal Grandpa moved here with his parents in 1917 to flee the Revolution. My paternal Grandma's family moved here around the same time, but mostly for better opportunities. They found work at a brickyard near Los Angeles which was filled with a lot of people from their village in Mexico.
posted by luckynerd at 10:13 AM on January 16, 2012

My best friend immigrated to US to avoid political and economic chaos in Ukraine in 90s. Almost all immigrants who I know wanted to move away from Ukraine and Russia, and go to any country that let them in. They did not have a particular desire to move to the US. In fact, many of them don't like US even though they live in there.
posted by ivanka at 12:04 PM on January 16, 2012

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