As Joe Biden prepares to become the 46th president of the United States, many people wonder how immigration will be handled differently under this new administration.
Certainly, in recent years the story for so many immigrants is very different from the way it was for me when I embarked on my American journey more than three decades ago, arriving from Argentina with a mixture of trepidation and excitement.
It was the 1980s when I arrived in the U.S. as an international student, seeking a better education and relying on my own industriousness and a $2,000 loan from a family friend to make it in this new country. I knew just enough English to get by, was unsure what would happen when my money ran out (which didn’t take long to happen), and had to adapt to the American culture and way of life. I had to leave much behind, but it was all worth it as I saw much opportunity ahead.
And what was I leaving behind besides my family, friends, language and culture?
Perhaps a story from when I was 17 illustrates this best.
One day, some friends and I went to a movie cinema to watch the 1978 American movie The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam War film that I mistakenly and naively thought would be about hunting deer. This confusion, though, was the least of my worries.
More concerning was that during a time of military dictatorship, the Argentine government had blacklisted that movie, labeling anyone who watched it a revolutionary. No one going into that cinema would have known this; it was intended to be a trap!
For my crime, the government tossed me in jail where they interrogated and harassed me. Finally, presumably after determining I was no real threat, they released me, along with the friends who had watched the movie with me. As you might imagine, if you were not a revolutionary before such an experience, afterward you would begin to develop thoughts about standing up for your rights.
This is what was happening in my home country. The Argentine people called for elections after the 1982 Falklands War, a dismal failure for the military. Demonstrators were in the streets facing off against the military as they sought the right to have a say in their own destinies.
Compare that to the world that greeted me in the U.S. a few years later. Sometime after my arrival, I attended a July Fourth event where people celebrated their freedom. It was so powerful to experience this contrast after having been raised under a military regime.
Even though I have now been in the U.S. for more than 30 years, my experience as a newly arrived immigrant stayed with me and gives me empathy for those who leave their home countries today to come to the United States, sometimes at great risk.
But times have changed. The atmosphere for immigrants is not as welcoming as when I arrived, for several reasons. Many people are afraid of too much immigration and I understand their concern. They worry it will overwhelm us or that too many people will come into the country with no way to support themselves and become a burden on the system.
My response to such concerns is that providing qualified immigrants a clear path to legalization and citizenship will strengthen the cultural and economic base of the country. When I say qualified, I mean hard-working people who are trying to contribute to society. Sure, there are some immigrants, as with any group, who abuse the system, but so many more just want to provide a better life for their families. I’m confident we can find ways to differentiate between the two.
My hope is that an administration that is more inclusive and more progressive in its social views will create an easier, more affordable path to citizenship.
That’s another place where my story diverges from current immigrants. These days becoming a citizen is far more difficult and more expensive. I have friends who, even after doing everything right, end up spending many years and over $60,000 in their quest to become citizens.
Imagine for a moment that you are an immigrant holding an entry-level job; $60,000 is an enormous amount of money to pay in legal fees and other expenses. The path to citizenship can be a huge hurdle to overcome. It should not be such a complex and expensive process. Many people who come to American as immigrants are contributing to the economy and to their neighborhoods and their communities. They also are contributing to the tax base.
Often, people tell me: “You represent the American dream.”
I get it. I came to this country with nothing but a $2,000 loan and achieved success beyond imagination, starting my own business, consulting with business leaders internationally, and even publishing books in my field. Yet, I have friends and relatives in Argentina who worked just as hard and are just as capable but are unable to succeed in the same way.
That is why people continue to come to the United States, even when the hurdles are far greater. Those who want to achieve their own American dream still see in our country an extraordinary place that is so much better than the one they are leaving. By providing a clear path to legalization to qualified immigrants, we can help many realize their own American dream and build a stronger, and more prosperous country for us and for the entire world.
Juan Riboldi is an international business advisor and principal and president of Ascent Advisor, a management consulting firm.
He is the author of the upcoming book, Strategic Transformation: How to Deliver What Matters Most. For over 20 years, Riboldi has been advising leaders at the highest levels of business, education and government on strategy, organization, and execution.
His clients include Fortune 50 corporations as well as fast-growing private enterprises. He successfully launched and led three consulting firms, and completed post-graduate studies at Harvard Business School and Wharton School of Business.