‘Only in America…’ is a narcissistic lie

America sells a lie of social mobility to attract migrants and asylum seekers only to entrap most of them.

An asylum seeker carries his baby past US Border Patrol agents as they wait between the double fence along the US-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico, May 8, 2023
An asylum seeker carries his baby past US Border Patrol agents as they wait between the double fence along the US-Mexico border near Tijuana, Mexico, May 8, 2023 [Denis Poroy/AP Photo]

In May, yet another young migrant died after spending a week in detention near the United States-Mexico border, courtesy of the US Border Patrol.

Eight-year-old Panamanian migrant Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez had sickle cell anaemia and heart issues, and had recently caught flu. She never received the help she needed from US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to survive, even though her family made at least three requests for help. A week earlier, 17-year-old Honduran migrant Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza died five days after entering a detention facility in Florida, with the actual cause of death still unknown.

The xenophobia, anti-Latinx racism, and Islamophobia that have guided US immigration policies since 1986 make anyone singing Neil Diamond’s lyrics “Got a dream to take them there, they’re coming to America” likely to choke on the sheer hypocrisy of it all. Emma Lazarus and her 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus”, with the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, engraved on the Statue of Liberty, are empty promises in this dystopian age.

One of the great US mantras stemming from its golden age of immigration often begins with “Only in America can a person start with nothing and achieve the American Dream”.

Given the history of social mobility in the US, the idea of “Only in America” is a straight-up lie. It is a lie that attracts desperate migrants and asylum seekers to the US like honey attracts insects, only to entrap, envelope and kill. Those who are lucky enough to “make it” often end up selling this same narcissistic untruth.

It is a lie I have heard my whole life living in the US. As early as fourth grade, I remember my teacher going on about the legend of robber baron Andrew Carnegie while I was likely daydreaming about making myself a fried bologna sandwich when I went home for lunch. He arrived in the US in 1848 at 13 with only a few dollars in his pocket, only to become a near billionaire by the time he sold Carnegie Steel in 1901.

Almost completely omitted from his rags-to-riches story are the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers he paid between 10 and 15 cents per hour to work six or seven days a week in some of the deadliest conditions in the industrial age. In the 1880s alone, roughly one of every five male deaths in the Pittsburgh area could be attributed to accidents working in Carnegie’s coal mines, coke plants and steel mills, according to author Peter Krass. Yet over and over again, the myth-makers have used Carnegie and others as examples of thrift, hard work, and achieving the American Dream.

Stories of the US being “the land of opportunity” with “streets paved with gold” helped draw more than 30 million migrants between the end of the US Civil War and the turn of the 20th century. They came from rural Italy and southern China (until the US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882). They came from the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires; from Ireland and Greece.

Despite the dangerous and often deadly work millions of them ended up with in steel mills, slaughterhouses and coal mines, the myth of the penniless child-turned-millionaire emerged, thanks in part to authors like Horatio Alger. And those tales have evolved to the uniquely US idea of “Only in America is my life story” of massive socioeconomic mobility “possible”.

The US does a stupendous job of selling itself as “the leader of the free world” and a “shining beacon on a hill”. As comedian and former host of the Netflix series Patriot Act Hasan Minhaj said at the 2017 White House correspondents’ dinner, “Only in America can a first-generation Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president … It’s this amazing tradition that shows the entire world that even the president is not beyond the reach of the First Amendment.”

Maybe so. But one of the reasons why many of today’s migrants and asylum seekers come to the US is because of the geopolitics and military interventions of the US and the West in their home countries’ affairs, where freedom of speech becomes an afterthought.

For decades, the US fought Cold War proxy wars or propped up dictators in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. For years, the US has engaged in a failed and destabilising war on drugs in the Caribbean and Latin America. For years, the US has encouraged governments and corporations in the region to replace subsistence farming with agribusiness approaches and non-native crops. Millions of common people were left with migration as the only way to save their lives and end their abject poverty. Only to find a nation-state all too willing to police, neglect and abuse people like Alvarez and Espinoza.

Perhaps the most famous use of this incredible lie came in former President Barack Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts, when he was still an Illinois state senator. “I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that, in no other country on earth, is my story even possible,” Obama proclaimed with full sincerity.

The biracial son of a Black Kenyan father and a white woman from Kansas becoming president of the US is pretty improbable. But then again, so has been the rise of Rishi Sunak as the United Kingdom’s first prime minister of Indian descent. The same was true for 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who served as president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018, all in the aftermath of two civil wars. Born in poverty to a Gola father and Kru-German mother, Johnson Sirleaf was the first African woman democratically elected to any presidency on the continent. “In no other country on earth is my story even possible” is just typical American narcissism.

Just because a Barack Obama or a Rishi Sunak or even an Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has become the leader of a nation-state does not mean these nations are more welcoming of refugees, asylum seekers, or migrants. After all, under Obama’s watch, forced removals of recent arrivals crossing the US border increased dramatically. His administration’s anti-immigrant efforts allowed Obama’s critics to call him “deporter-in-chief”.

Sunak’s pledge in January to stop migrants and asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats is another example of self-serving hypocrisy. It is a UK policy Sunak self-described known as “Stop the Boats”, one that includes a plan to move several thousand migrants and asylum seekers out of hotel rooms and onto barges in British ports. “Only in America” or the equivalent in the UK and Europe means nothing if migrants cannot successfully migrate.

Meanwhile, by most tangible measures, there is no higher level of upward socioeconomic mobility in the US than for any native-born person born into poverty in the UK, Europe or Japan. And intergenerational social mobility in the US is in fact in long-term decline, according to researchers. Only in America can people navel-gaze their ways into believing they somehow can become rich regardless of education, training, or family background, even though the odds are piled moon-high against them.

“Only in America” can so many never question how the US forces so many within and outside its borders to start with nothing, through its international interventions and racial capitalist policies and politics. The reality of the US as a racist, xenophobic, isolationist, and narcissistic society only becomes obvious when those desperate for a better future confront the lethal contradictions embedded in America’s promise.

“Only in America” can a narcissistic lie and promise kill migrant children like Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez and Ángel Eduardo Maradiaga Espinoza, all while millions of Americans shrug their shoulders in denial about their nation-state’s massive hypocrisy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.