The Lie of America as a Meritocracy

Photo Credit: Robert Gourley

Meritocracy: a system in which people can move ahead on the basis of their achievement, or in other words, achieve the American Dream. Such a system implies equal opportunity, in which people can succeed solely through hard work and determination. For some immigrants in the United States, the idea of meritocracy gives them hope that if they work just hard enough, they might achieve a certain, “ideal” lifestyle and improve their social standing in our society. However, even though we often idealize America as the land of opportunity, equality, and freedom, how true does this justify the reality of our country? What hinders meritocracy and how does the disjuncture between the illusion of the American Dream and the real experiences of immigrants affect immigrants themselves?

In Leisy Janet Abrego’s study, “I Can’t Go To College Because I Don’t Have Papers”: Incorporation Patterns of Youth Latino Undocumented Youth, we learn how immigration policies and societal attitude devalue the “transformative potential” (Abrego 213) of undocumented youth, restrict their educational options, and provide “no available structural paths for those who excel academically” (Abrego 227). Thus, Abrego reveals the lie of American meritocracy. Regardless of how much some of these students throw themselves into their academics, “their legal protections end after high school, greatly limiting their chances for upward mobility through education” (Abrego 212). Instead of advancing in their educational and career goals as the American Dream would suggest, “their efforts to adapt and contribute economically are met with legal obstacles” (Abrego 227).

Consequently, as Abrego suggests, “in some cases, knowledge of future barriers to college attendance leads to a decline in educational motivation” (Abrego 213), thus perpetuating the misconception of uninterested undocumented youth and the idea that many immigrant youth require less challenging academic work since their grades are statistically lower. In fact, during the time I attended public school in Miami, I encountered many friends and acquaintances that veered into street life and drugs because they did not see a future as traditionally respected and successful undocumented individuals in our society. All too often they fulfilled the stereotype of the unmotivated and disruptive Latino immigrant student, but what many of their teachers and peers did not realize is that they were adolescents struggling with the knowledge that their legal status stunted their career and professional development. They wanted to succeed, wanted to overcome their families’ obstacles in a new country, but without the ability or financial means to pursue higher education, they saw no way to achieve academically and instead adopted oppositional attitudes towards school.

In the case of close friend, also from Colombia, the only difference that existed between us was our legal statuses. When we graduated with similar transcripts and academic records, she headed off to work as a waitress and I had the opportunity to attend a small private liberal arts college. Even though legislation extending in-state college tuition to undocumented youth has grown over the years, hundreds and thousands of undocumented youth graduate every year, but they are forced to stay in the lowest ranks of our social and economic hierarchy without the opportunity to pursue higher education and employment (McLendon, Mokher, and Flores 565). Certainly, immobilizing so many capable youth is not the picture that America’s land of opportunity promises its citizens and immigrants from afar.

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