The American Dream
More than one in four adult Dominicans share Arias’ dream to immigrate to the U.S., according to a recent Gallup poll.
This is hardly a surprise for Carol Graham, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, whose research spans poverty, inequality, public health and novel measures of well being in Latin America.
“It’s one of the Latin American countries with the worst governed economy in the region,” Graham wrote in an email interview.
Arias got a visa granting her access to the U.S. in 1994. It was valid for just three months, but with little money and a strong will to find a better life for her young child, she stayed for good. Later, she married a U.S. citizen and became a permanent resident.
Landing in New York City — her first time outside of her island homeland — Arias started out going door-to-door offering an in-home manicure and pedicure service.
Eventually, she found a job at a Dominican hair salon, where she worked for several years before moving to Maryland and opening her own salon.
Land of opportunity
Despite the recession and slow recovery, the U.S. continues to be the most popular destination for potential immigrants worldwide. According to a recent Gallup poll, the Dominican Republic is third in the world – after Liberia and Sierra Leone – in the percentage of its population that would like to move to the U.S..
More than 40 percent of the estimated 10 million residents of the Dominican Republic live below the poverty line, according to World Bank data. Money sent from Dominicans in the U.S. amounts to nearly 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Many, like Arias, are willing to do whatever it takes for the opportunity of a better life.
“Regardless of the state of the U.S. economy, the wage differentials with countries like the Dominican Republic are still of an order of magnitude that the move is well-worth making,” Graham wrote.
Just a few blocks away from Arias’ salon, Los Hermanos restaurant, a Dominican restaurant in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C., bustles with the lunch crowd.
D.C. native Raymond Compres, whose family owns the restaurant, serves plates piled with meat, rice, beans and plantains to a largely Dominican clientele. The radio plays romantic bachata tunes, a style of music native to the Dominican Republic, and the restaurant’s wall-mounted television is showing a Dominican baseball game.
“It’s been our year,” Compres says, referring to the Dominican team’s recent World Classic Baseball championship win.
Thanks to the more lenient immigration laws of the 1980s, Raymond’s parents were able to follow family members already living in the U.S. and immigrate.
“My country is a nice place to live,” says Mercedes Compres, Raymond’s mother, but making a living is very hard. We wanted to come to the U.S. for better economic opportunities and education for our children, Compres says in Spanish.
About three miles away, thousands start to gather near the U.S. Capitol for the “Rally for Citizenship,” where immigration reform supporters demanded a path to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally. Several of the restaurant’s patrons, including Arias, finish their meals and head to the National Mall to join the protest.