Juan Rangel: The lesson of migrant handouts and the stifling of the American Dream

Juan Rangel: The lesson of migrant handouts and the stifling of the American Dream

Given my decadeslong work with immigrant communities in Chicago, I read with great interest, if not dismay, a recent article in the Tribune. The headline declared, “The American Dream doesn’t exist anymore,” quoting a disillusioned Michael Castejon, a recently arrived Venezuelan migrant who sought asylum status in the U.S. but is now returning home.

Our immigration system is definitely broken, but I beg to differ on the epitaph of the great American spirit, especially for immigrants who continue to arrive daily from around the world. The difference is in the lesson on how to succeed in America and in how we go about teaching it.

Unfortunately for the new migrants mostly from Venezuela arriving by the busloads, our left-of-center leadership has made life that much harder for them, not easier, by dangling unsustainable government giveaways. Drive by any police station-turned-shantytown, and you’ll witness a developing world-like picture of people waiting for government assistance just to get by.

The natural immigrant instinct to get ahead in America is being short-circuited by the latest social welfare experiment being foisted on them. “Don’t leave your spot at the designated shelter, police station or upcoming tent or you will lose your benefits,” they are told. Welfare as we once knew it is back for these migrants.

But history has taught us a different lesson since immigrants first began arriving on our shores. Each wave brought us the “tired” and “huddled masses” who came to find not comfort but opportunity in America and with no guarantees. Immigrants understand that the American Dream is earned, not handed out, unless, of course, we teach them otherwise.

Leaving one’s home country to establish new roots in a foreign land is never an easy path to take. But as my mother, who came to this country in 1952 as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, would say about her own experience of endurance over hardship: “De que nos quejamos, nadie nos trajo.” “What are we complaining about, no one brought us here.” She understood, as others do, that in choosing the journey, there was an obligatory give-and-take required. It’s an exchange of goods and rewards for hard work, support of a broader community and not becoming a burden to the greater society.

Beyond the current “crisis,” keep in mind that thousands of other immigrants continue to cross our southern border, illegally. And what of the long-forgotten 11 million immigrants, mostly Mexican nationals, already here? They’re not waiting for our government to act on the much-promised immigration reform to find the American Dream. They work and live without government assistance or, more accurately, government intrusion.

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Go to a nearby Home Depot in the wee hours, and you’ll find an encampment of immigrants — not waiting for a handout but for the next employer looking to hire them. Visit any immigrant community, and you’ll marvel at the entrepreneurs, whether they be proprietors of mom-and-pop stores and taquerias or makeshift street vendor carts selling fruit, corn, champurrado, flowers or even cotton candy. And no, they aren’t all just barely getting by. Some, like Claudia Perez, as illustrated in a Tribune story in 2019, earn enough money selling tamales or other items to put their kids through college. It’s a lot of hardship, but with a whole lot of reward. It’s the American way.

Sadly, the Venezuelan migrants are learning the wrong lesson. By manufacturing a crisis that requires asylum-seekers to need government-provided shelter, food and everything imaginable to get by, our leaders have stifled the one thing truly needed for success in America — aspiration. It’s an immigrant’s own God-given can-do skill toward self-reliance.

Yet, our city, county and state leaders are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to address the migrant issue, erecting unwanted and dehumanizing tent cities, giving away food and clothing, and, of course, increasing the largesse of government bureaucracy in the process. Thank you, Illinois taxpayers.

If there is a lesson to relearn, it’s that social welfare doesn’t always eradicate poverty, but it can and will incentivize it. Before we continue to tax and spend millions more creating a permanent underclass of our newest arrivals, lets learn from past immigrants who have been challenged by the process of integrating themselves into the broader society but have managed to get ahead nonetheless.

Perhaps the best lesson from the new migrants themselves, who fled the failed economy in their home country, is that socialism hasn’t worked in Caracas, Venezuela, and it doesn’t work in Chicago either. That’s a lesson worth repeating.

Juan Rangel is president of Mastery Consulting LLC and former senior director at Empower Illinois, former CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization and founder of the UNO Charter School Network (now Acero Charter Schools).

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.

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