The True Cost of the American Dream for Immigrants

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Since its coinage in 1931 (Murphy, 2010), the ‘American Dream’ has drawn millions of immigrants from all over the world to the United States with the large promise of success. According to James Truslow Adams, the concept of the American Dream is best defined as: “That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone…each man and woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth and position.” (Adams 34). This ultimately means that someone who comes from a life full of setbacks can still attain prosperity, so as long they come to America and work excruciatingly hard towards ‘success’. This notion is not solely applicable to the United States, Canada being a perfect example. In 2018 alone, approximately 310, 000 immigrants (Singer, 2018) came to Canada searching for the Canadian Dream. However, many immigrants that arrive in Canada end up facing the nightmare that awaits them instead. According to Statistics Canada, “the chronic low-income rate was 2.6 times higher among immigrants than the Canadian-born in 2001, and 3.3 times higher in 2012. In addition to this, there was little difference in the chronic low-income rate between immigrants who have been in Canada for 5 to 10 years and those in the country for 16 to 20 years” (Statistics Canada, 2017), thus outlining that the duration of time spent in Canada working for a better future need not bring about that goal. After examining trends in unemployment, social mobility, and the overwhelming cost of living, one can conclude that the Canadian Dream is more of a nightmare than it is a dream.

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The most prominent pillar of the Canadian Dream is promising newcomers a secure, stable, and well-paying job. In fact, of the 1,212,075 new immigrants who settled in Canada from 2011 to 2016, 60.3% were admitted under the economic category (Statistics Canada, 2017). However, simply finding a job that is related to an immigrants’ field of study proves to be enough of a challenge, if not impossible. My aunt, Mahmuda Khannam, studied at the University of Dhaka and received her Bachelor’s Degree in the Arts, with a major in English Literature and a double minor in Social Studies and Islamic Studies, later to find that her degree was worth nothing upon arriving in Canada. “It’s funny, I studied Canada’s first language and here I am without a job. Instead of working in my field of study, I’ve been jumping between different fast food restaurants working part-time shifts”, she said. This is not uncommon for immigrant women with a degree from outside Canada in a non-STEM subject, as a TRIEC study found that they tend to make about half as much as their Canadian-born counterparts (TRIEC, 2018). A similar problem poses itself to men as well. “My husband was in the Bangladesh military working as an IT professional with a Ph.D, and now he works as a low-level security guard.”, said Khannam. Although the Canadian Dream promises a safe, stable job, most immigrants are unable to achieve that job due to the lack of recognition of international experience.

Without the credentials to find a stable job, the cost of living for immigrants in Canada becomes increasingly overwhelming. According to Statistics Canada, the national cost of living has increased by a whopping 36% since 2002, and has left newcomers struggling financially. Immigrants tend to pay an average () more than their Canadian-born peers annually, all while reaping the consequences of an immigrant wage gap. In Ontario, university-educated immigrants who work in their field of study make about 14.3% less than university-educated Canadians (Conference Board of Canada, 2017), and that number is far higher for those immigrants without a university education. My father, Golam Farooq, has experienced this first had, saying “My university degree wasn’t enough to get a job of good caliber right off the bat, so I had to work several low-level jobs in order to bring in an income. We barely had enough money to put food on the table.”. Speaking on the same topic, Mahmuda added, “We were quite well off in Bangladesh, but in Canada we are below the poverty line. Once we first arrived, we put our life-savings towards paying for insurance, a new home, and all my medications. We wanted to take advantage of the free healthcare, but we couldn’t do that without insurance, and we paid a lot for that.”. In a country where free healthcare and education are such high commodities, it is ironic how these benefits come at such a high cost.

Most families come to Canada in search of a better future, mainly in regards to their children. As of 2016, about 54.5% of Canadian couples had children (Statistics Canada, 2017) and 2.2 million children had at least one foreign-born parent (Statistics Canada, 2017). When asked why she chose to move to Canada, Khannam’s first response was “I am a mother. I only want the best for my children, so they can reap the benefits and surpass me.”. However, the high expectation of social mobility is often left unfulfilled. Mumtahina Shanin, Khannam’s daughter and my cousin, is a recent immigrant to Canada and is now studying in the 10th grade. “I had no idea what to expect from the Canadian education, but I was definitely not expecting this.”, she said. “In Bangladesh, we were so used to constant standardized testing and pressure. They worked us really hard, and that made us try harder in school. Now that I’m in Canada, that academic pressure is gone, and so is the motivation to do well in school because all we can worry about now is money.”. In addition to worrying about the family’s financial burden, first-generation Canadian students face the pressure of needing to achieving what their parents couldn’t - that being, success. Here, success is characterised by the elements of the Canadian Dream: a stable and secure job, a high income, and a life of luxury. However, the initial income of an immigrant family weighs heavily on their children and their social mobility. In the first year upon arriving in Canada, immigrant families who landed in 2015 made an average of $24,000 (Statistics Canada, 2017), which is well below the poverty line (Corak, 2018) and places them in the bottom fifth in terms of income (Globe and Mail). In Canada, the chances that a child with parents in the bottom fifth grows up to have an income in the bottom fifth is 30.1%, while the chances of them having an income in the top fifth is only 11.4% (Cardoso and Saunders, 2017). “My parents expect me to become a doctor, but how can I become a doctor when I won’t have enough to cover my post-secondary education and living? Student loans are great, but there are some things that they can’t pay for.”, said Shanin. Shanin’s struggle to achieve the Canadian Dream goes to show that although immigrant parents come to Canada for the betterment of their children, it often goes to waste.

For as long as North America has received immigrants, the American Dream has served as a sense of hope that anyone can achieve prosperity in ‘the land of the free’, regardless of their previous circumstances. However, “...both immigrants dreaming the Dream and Americans discussing the Dream [oftentimes] completely disregard the possibility of failure.” (Murphy, 2010). When asked whether he believed in the Canadian Dream, Golam replied with, “For most of us, there is no specific dream. We just want to do better, to live better, to be better. I’ve lived in Canada for almost 19 years. Have I achieved this Canadian Dream? No, of course not. Am I happy where I am? Absolutely.”. The Canadian Dream is so ingrained in our country, that we assume every newcomer is it, while reality shows us that newcomers are not necessarily seeking the Canadian Dream. “I don’t expect to live in a fancy 5-storey house with a garden and all sorts of luxuries.”, said Mahmuda. “I came here so things could be better than back home. I didn’t come looking for a dream, I came looking for reality. And now, I have found it.”. 

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