Iranians hold Americans hostage for six months with seeming impunity. The bodies of eight servicemen who died trying to rescue them are displayed before jeering crowds. The Soviet Union shows its contempt for American military might and invades Afghanistan. Once-inconsequential nations bank billions of dollars in oil revenues. At home, inflation and unemployment gnaw away at American life styles.
Everywhere, it seems, America is reviled, manipulated and powerless.
Yet the human stream continues:
They come from small villages in Central America, from the socialist paradise that is Cuba, from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Hundreds of thousands of them, with millions more waiting and hoping for the chance to follow. To them, at least, the American dream is not dead.
No other country in the world is so desirable in the eyes of those seeking a new and better life. A Kettering Foundation study in the early 1970s found that one out of every three people in Latin America wanted to emigrate to the United States. Waiting lists for some types of American visas are backed up for as long as 11 years. By huge margins, Indochinese refugees in Thailand pick the United States as their preference for resettlement.
America accepts more immigrants and refugees than the total of all other free-world nations combined.
In this time of national frustration and sometimes even despair, the simple faith of tens of millions around the world in the promise of America is a compliment of the highest order.
What faith do these people have in our country that seemingly has been forgotten or lost by many here?
Listen to Raul Caballero, a Cuban refugee from the 1960s who danced and smoked and sang into the early morning recently when his nephew, after 18 years of trying, finally managed to flee Cuba on a shrimp trawler last week.
"Why? Why everyone want to come to this country?" he asked, his eyes flashing with pride in his American citizenship. "If you want to work, you can earn a living in this country. If you want to say what you think, you can in this country. That is why. It is worth giving up everything for the chance."
Listen to a middle-aged Bolivian woman, here illegally for eight years, who works two jobs and raises two children.
"I wash dishes and I clean up an office and I earn more than I could ever earn in Bolivia," she said. "My children are learning to read and maybe they will go to college. Those who stay behind have no hope. Here there is hope."
"The people who come to this country, who leave everything they have on the faith that they will be able to live life the way it should be lived, aren't the dregs," said one immigration attorney. "They're usually the most ambitious, the most daring, the ones willing to take a risk and work hard. I think, and this is the opinion of a lot of people I work with, that they're the cream of the crop because they have the guts to do it. They're just like the ones who made America what it is today."
In our current national mood -- in our bitterness over what we see as foreign ingratitude for years of financial largess and of taking the front line militarily -- those who seek to come here are often perceived as interlopers, Johnnies-come-lately, seeking a slice of a diminishing pie when they couldn't make their own way in their home countries.
"Look, they're coming here because they fouled it up in east Uganistan," one angry caller told me recently. "They come here and take jobs away from us. They live on welfare that we pay for. They can all go to hell as far as I'm concerned."
Unfortunately, there are just no data to enable one to tell for sure. But there are indicators. One study in Washington's Adams-Morgan and Mt. Pleasant area, where many Latinos live, seems to contradict the welfare argument. Few if any receive welfare, though they might be entitled to it. Partly, they do not accept it because they do not know it is there. Partly, they do not collect it because to do so would disqualify them if later they tried to serve as sponsors for relatives to come. And partly, according to Washington immigration attorney Michael Maggio, they refuse to accept it because it is a matter of pride that they will make it on their own.
As for taking jobs, that too is difficult to document one way or another. Most of the jobs the immigrants take are at the lowest rung of the ladder -- parking attendant, dishwasher, janitor, domestic -- and these jobs are seldom considered desirable by American-born workers. In the past, many of these jobs have been filled by young, native-born workers. Now, with the end of the baby boom, there is strong evidence that there will be fewer and fewer Americans available to fill them in the 1980s.
Yet, whatever the arguments pro or con, at a time when most here feel buffeted by forces of change we cannot understand or control, when the nightly news and morning paper seem to bring only additional frustrations, we should not fail to notice that throughout the world, America is still perceived as what we were brought up to believe it was: a land of promise.
It is something you can still feel proud about.