The Other One Percent

Wednesday November 27, 2013 | Filed under: Community

On my way to the airport a couple of weeks ago, I was picked up by a taxi driver who was the happiest guy I’ve met in years.

Born and raised in Ethiopia, three years ago he won one of about 50,000 “green cards” granted annually through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program to nationals of countries we consider to be under-represented in U.S. immigration.  To qualify to submit an application, people must have either a high school diploma, or two years of work experience within the last five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training and be otherwise admissible.

Each year, many millions of people from around the world apply for this visa.  Only about 1% of all qualified applicants “win” the lottery, which is just the first step.  Then there’s another selection process, and only about half of the winners actually end up with visas.

With odds like those, it’s no wonder my taxi driver described his visa as “a gift from God.”

In Ethiopia, most people farm in the face of tremendous obstacles like deforestation and drought. Crop failures and famine persists and life expectancy is only 59, compared with 79 here in the U.S. Despite recent gains, the country’s GDP per capita is only about $1,200, compared with $50,000 here.

The driver is thrilled to be in the United States.  “I have a car I drive nice people around in, I can have my Starbucks with me if I want, I dress up every day in clean, nice clothes, and I can do anything here I want to do,” he told me. “Most countries aren’t free, and people here seem to not realize that and how much better it is here.”

I teared up. In a taxi.

This heartfelt story was told by someone who couldn’t speak English when he landed at JFK.  It made me realize all over again how much we need comprehensive immigration reform that will allow us to continue welcoming such wonderful people to the United States. The truth is, most immigrants work long hours for low pay at menial jobs many citizens sneer at – and they want nothing more than to become legal and work without fear of deportation or exploitation.

Whenever I meet someone so clearly appreciative of the chance they’ve been given to change their life for the better, I think about how much, in turn, they can contribute to our understanding of the world at large and to our culture and success. Who’s to say this taxi driver won’t one day contribute as much as many other immigrants have, from Albert Einstein and John Muir to Madeleine Albright and Irving Berlin.

I am thankful today for the friends and family I have, and for all of the comfort and success I share with my colleagues at ASI and throughout our industry.

I am thankful, too, for this young man, his enthusiasm for life and the life he will someday build as a proud citizen of the United States.