My immigrant experience

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

My father, mother, younger brother, and me in 1974, a year before we came to the U.S.
My father, mother, younger brother and me in 1974, a year before we came to the United States.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York people asked me to write up some short thoughts about my immigrant experience, and I did; they originally appeared on Carnegie Corporation of New York's Medium channel, on this page, but I also copy them below. The occasion for this was Carnegie's kind inclusion of my name on their yearly selected list of immigrants whom they choose to honor (a list that this year also includes my Washington Post colleague Ann Telnaes).

My immigrant experience was easy. My parents brought me here when I was seven. New languages and new cultures are simple for a seven year old to pick up. Starting over isn't hard when you've just barely started.

My parents' immigrant experience is another story. My father Vladimir, who was 36 when we came to Los Angeles in 1975, knew Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and German— but not English. My mother Anne knew English, but her career in Russia was as a journalist, not a job that transferred well to America. My father had worked for 15 years as a computer programmer in Russia, so his skills carried over. But his resumé didn't carry over: he had to start work as an entry-level computer operator, just as my mother had to retrain herself as a secretary. And of course they came here with no money and no other tangible assets.

Yet they had intangible assets, of the sort that millions of other immigrants brought with them.

First, they were willing to take calculated risks. Because the Soviet Union was a closed society, they had no way of knowing how good America really was. They couldn't visit first; they couldn't talk freely to Americans; they couldn't read anything reliable about America.

Indeed, it was hard for many Soviet citizens even to understand how bad the Soviet Union was. But my parents grasped the evils of the Soviet system. And they figured out enough about America to realize that it was worth trying to get here, even if that meant abandoning their careers (which were successful by Soviet standards), their friends, and the language and culture of their birth.

Second, they were willing to work very hard (my father often worked both a full-time job and a part-time job for the first years of our life here), and they insisted that their children work hard. They knew they couldn't count on college degrees, or test scores, or even raw intelligence. They knew that only effort and determination could lift them up, and lift up our family.

Third, they cared deeply about educating their children - not just sending us to college, but making sure that we actually learned things.

Someone once asked me whether I had been homeschooled, and I quickly said no. But then I realized that in many ways I was schooled at home.

I learned to read and write Russian and English at home. I learned a good deal about history and geography at home, since I liked to read about such things. I learned arithmetic and algebra from my father at home. I learned computer programming, which became my first career, from my father; he would take me in the evenings to places where he worked, starting when I was eight, so I could use the computer. (This was before the era of widely available PCs.)

Along with programming, I learned work habits. I got my first part-time job, as a computer programmer, when I was twelve; the experience of actually working was more educational than most of my formal education. Child labor is bad when it interferes with a child's education. But working as a teenager, and even younger - something immigrants have long done - was a critical part of my education. And that part of my education I owe to my parents.

As it happens, my parents' hard work paid off for their own careers. They quickly succeeded in their jobs. Five years after we came to the U.S., my father and I started a small business writing and selling computer software. A year after that, my father quit his job and started running our fledgling company full-time. (Recall what I said about willingness to take calculated risks.) My mother became a businesswoman, too.

Fourth, my parents came to America looking for freedom. They don't involve themselves in public policy debates, the way my brother (also a law professor) and I do. They don't talk politics much. But they know how stultifying it is when you can't freely talk politics - or even talk about apolitical things that the government has made political.

They know how constraining it is when you can't start your own business. They know how damaging a command-and-control economy is to the health, wealth, and happiness of a nation. They know the danger posed by ideologues obsessed with radically restructuring society (and even human nature) in the service of goals that the ideologues see as so noble that nothing is allowed to stand in the way.

I likely inherited some of my political and legal views on these matters from my parents, and from their immigrant experience.

But what I most came to appreciate from that experience is that many of the old truisms are true. America is the land of opportunity. If you work hard enough, you can succeed, even if - like my father - you speak with an accent and come from a nation with which the U.S. is in a cold war. And sometimes abandoning everything you have and know, and moving half a world away in search of freedom and opportunity, is the smartest decision you can make for yourself and for your family.