Lucy Berrington

Is the American dream still available?


A YEAR ago this week, I became an American. The ceremony took place a couple of days after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in Faneuil Hall, where more than 400 of us had assembled to take the oath of citizenship. Looking around, I realized I hadn’t done this properly. Most people had installed family and friends in the balcony with cameras, ready to record the moment and celebrate afterwards. I’d come alone, hoping it would be over in time for me to pick up my son from school.

“We may all have come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now,’’ said the presiding judge, quoting King. He added, “America’s welcoming society is more than cultural tradition; it’s a fundamental promise of our democracy’’ - the words of George W. Bush in 2006 - and cited Barack Obama’s presidency as validation of this principle.

Still, something seemed off. It wasn’t the fault of anyone there. If anything, I was struck by the warmth of the ceremony. The Founding Fathers gazed down from their portraits approvingly, and the judge seemed happy to be there. I was indeed grateful: I have a good life here and find plenty to admire. It was unexpectedly moving, this moment when my life briefly connected with hundreds of different lives.


Even so, I couldn’t help but question the premise — the enduring appeal of the American Dream at a time when achieving it seems ever more difficult. The freedoms for which we give ourselves so much credit are being whittled away, or at least taken for granted. During my citizenship interview a few weeks earlier, the interviewer had made a sardonic comment about my soon being “free to pursue a life of religious fulfillment.’’ (Later, at the oath ceremony, he told me it was a quotation from the movie “Airplane’’ and he liked to throw it in when he was bored.) As it happens, on matters of religion I have found my greatest fulfillment in rejecting it. Though I’m confident that this choice would have been understood by the Founding Fathers, it is not so sympathetically received today.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The United States is falling short of its long-held aspirations in other ways — in education, health, the economy, socioeconomic mobility, equality of opportunity, the environment, infrastructure, and so on. It sounds harsh to ask, but are today’s immigrants arriving at the party as it is winding down?

My immigrant experience is hardly typical, I know. I’m a white woman from the United Kingdom with a good education, marketable skills, and a fine grasp of English (though my American can be shaky). When I moved here in 1997, my then-husband’s company handled the visas. A year or so later, green cards fell into our laps, and five years after that, in 2005, we became eligible for citizenship - 2005! Six years passed before I got around to filling out the form. It’s easy to procrastinate when your place in the world seems secure. When I looked around Faneuil Hall, I saw about 400 people whose paths there had been more arduous than mine, and had no difficulty understanding their delight.

A year later, though, I wonder if they are fulfilling their hopes. It’s not that ambition and effort don’t count, or that I didn’t work for what I have. But millions of people in this country and beyond are working just as hard, with precious little shot at equivalent opportunities and outcomes, including US citizenship.

The common response to a newcomer who criticizes her new country is to suggest she go back home. But to notice a country’s struggles isn’t to deny its strengths. Nearly half a century after Martin Luther King Jr. described his dream of equality, we still value that possibility - even if our collective cognitive dissonance is ever more evident.

Lucy Berrington is a writer and graduate student who lives outside Boston.