Living Columns & Blogs

Do you know all the ways that immigrants shape(d) the United States?

Chobani yogurt is among contributions of first-generation immigrants.
Chobani yogurt is among contributions of first-generation immigrants. AP, file

Immigrants and immigration policies are currently part of every news cycle. Changes to U.S. immigration laws are affecting both legal and undocumented immigrants. American citizens are being impacted too, including almost a third of our minor American children, who live with at least one immigrant parent.

Currently, there is an increase in negative stereotyping of immigrants. Although the U.S. was built by colonization, conquest, annexation, the slave trade and voluntary immigration, historically immigrants were not always looked upon very favorably.

In 1751, inventor and later founding father, Ben Franklin, did not want Germans coming to the English colony of Pennsylvania. Though he felt hard-working German farmers would grow the country, he worried that the “most stupid sort of people” were coming, that the swarthy complexion of non-Anglo-Saxons would make the country less white, and that they would “germanize” the country instead of getting “anglicized” themselves.

Franklin’s fears came true. Germans are the largest U.S. ethnic group today. They introduced the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. They started the first kindergarten, shaped the public-school system and used weekends for recreation. First-generation German immigrants founded Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller, and Germans drinking beer on weekends was a common caricature.

Today, the German experience is virtually indistinguishable from the American experience. Many immigrants contributed, even as they faced backlash. This included the poor, citizens of “wrong” countries, refugees and children who came before their potential was understood. They used their skills, values and opportunities to shape both the U.S. and the world. Yet, not many know famous immigrants or their contributions.

If we wear jeans, eat Chobani yogurt, get water from a Delta faucet, eat breakfast at the Waffle Shop, visit a national park, use Google, WhatsApp or Uber, we are using contributions of first-generation immigrants. All-American experiences of basketball, hotdogs, hip-hop and Zumba were created by first-generation immigrants. So were Kohl’s, Forever21, Nautica, Panda Express, Sweet Frog and many more enterprises.

Today, a quarter of U.S. doctors, one fifth of nurses and aides, and one sixth of dentists, pharmacists and clinical technicians are immigrants. Immigrant entrepreneurs hire one in ten Americans and create more than a quarter of U.S. start-ups and more than a half of Silicon Valley companies.

Universities recruit international students to overcome extreme shortages of American students in STEM fields and retain U.S. technological superiority. The one million international graduate and undergraduate students also bring in 37 billion dollars annually and support 450,000 jobs nationally.

Other countries are competing for these immigrants, including Canada, Australia, European countries and Japan. Today, a million legal immigrants come to the U.S. annually. Immigrants are 14 percent of our population — or 43 million people — including an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

The fingerprints of first-generation immigrants are everywhere. They are Nobel Laureates, politicians, inventors, farmers, construction workers and more. Knowing the history of U.S. immigration, the two-way nature of immigration, and the contributions of immigrants can help us shape future policy with the clear knowledge and wisdom of past experience.

Nalini Krishnankutty is a chemical engineer who writes and speaks about immigrant history and contributions. Her TEDxPSU talk “How Immigrants Shape(d) the United States,“ shapes narratives about immigrants and is currently used in public school and college classrooms. OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — offers over 150 courses this semester. Krishnankutty will lead a course on “How Immigrants Shape(d) the United States” in November.