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A Nation Engaged: Immigration and the ‘American Dream’

The Statue of Liberty, one of New York's premiere tourist attractions, is viewed from the Staten Island Ferry on September 30, 2013 in New York City.
The Statue of Liberty, one of New York's premiere tourist attractions, is viewed from the Staten Island Ferry on September 30, 2013 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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The American Dream has many faces. To some, it could look like a Norman Rockwell painting. To others, it could be an escape from gang warfare.

No matter how you picture it, the American Dream has been a proud advertisement to other nations.

But does the rest of the world see us as a place to give “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study on "America’s Global Image,” 69 percent of the nations surveyed had a favorable opinion of the U.S., while 24 percent had an unfavorable view. And despite Donald Trump’s stance on “building a wall” along the southern U.S. border, Mexican President Peña Nieto agreed to meet with the presidential nominee on Wednesday. Nieto said in a press conference after the meeting that “our countries are very important to each other.”

But beyond the surveys and rhetoric of political leaders, the outlook on the “American Dream” is individual and ever-changing. Previous generations may have a different meaning for the dream than their children do. And in a place as diverse as Los Angeles, what does the “American Dream” look like?

How has the American Dream changed in L.A. over the past decade? If you have family outside the country, how do they view the U.S.? If you immigrated from another country, what did you have to give up to become American and has the U.S. lived up to your expectations? Do you see L.A. as a city that welcomes people from other countries?

Larry Mantle asked listeners about their take on the American dream. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

What makes you feel American?

Oyin from Santa Barbara came from Nigeria when she was 3. She said she eventually learned to embrace both her cultures.

Oyin: My parents never wanted to live here so they constantly told us, 'you're not an American.' They kept us in a little Nigerian bubble. And then, slowly, I started to see how to balance both cultures ... I remember feeling very American for the first time when I graduated high school.  

Kirk in Calabasas immigrated to the U.S. from Iran with his family in the 1980s. He said every day since has been the American Dream fulfilled, particularly by his experience as a student at UCLA.

Kirk: I was accepted to UCLA on a full scholarship purely based on my academics. And now, I'm 44 years old and I've given a ton of money back [to UCLA]. I'm a surgeon and I've given back to fulfill that scholarship. . . Going to UCLA as an undergraduate, living in the dorms and being fully accepted by my "native American" friends and friends of other ethnicities, I think I've always felt [American] because of that. . . I'm Muslim American and I still go back to Iran, but there is no place on earth that I want to contribute, or want my children to contribute to, more than the United States.

What gives you and appreciation for American rights?

Alfredo in Compton said he was grateful for the second amendment.

Alfredo: What I love is the right to have a firearm.. My family comes from Mexico [where]  firearms are illegal… You can go to prison for having ammunition… Over here, you have the right to defend yourself.”How you doing?

Who represents the American Dream?

Yoi in Laurel Canyon was born in Japan. She said she was inspired by Barack Obama when she heard him speak about his heritage in 2004. Not yet a citizen in 2008, she was disappointed to not be able to vote for him in the presidential election.

Yoi: I was so frustrated because I really wanted to cast my vote for this man who I thought was the epitome of American dream fulfilled…At the time I was somewhat disillusioned by the disparity between American ideal and the reality on the ground. I have been a subject of prejudice and biased treatment... When he [Obama] got elected, that’s when I realized America as a whole was a place where that [the American Dream] was still alive.”

What opportunities have helped you achieve the American Dream?

Mauricio in Hollywood Heights immigrated to the U.S. to work in the film industry. While he traveled for work, he was based in Hollywood for four years before he truly considered the U.S. his home. When that feeling finally sank in, he thought about the doors that being in America had opened for him.

Mauricio: [America] is the one place on earth that allows you to push yourself as far as you want and essentially reach your limit. But that limit is set by [you], it's not a place that limits you in any way to get the most out of yourself, but it doesn't chastise you if you don't want to do that as well.

Rica in Montrose is originally from the Philippines and came to the United States in 2008. Her husband was born in Panama. When they were first married here in the U.S., she said things weren't easy, but taking advantage of 'American' opportunity changed that.

Rica: When we were poor, we asked each other, 'Why are we still here in the U.S. when we're having a hard time?' And then he told me, 'because here in the U.S., when if you're poor, you still have opportunities to work, to study, to have children and enjoy the benefits of free public school. . .' So when I got my green card, I went to USC. I earned my master's in education. I'm now a teacher and my husband and I have improved our lives. And despite the economic downfall in 2008, we live a good life. We both have jobs and we are on the positive side of the American Dream.

*These quotes have been edited for clarity. You can listen to the full segment by clicking the blue play button above.

Series: A Nation Engaged

NPR and KPCC's coverage of critical issues facing the nation before November's presidential election. The stories seek to build a nationwide conversation around focusing on a specific question each time.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.