04/25/2012 03:00 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

Re-Learning the Lesson of the United States

What do Key West and Uzbekistan have in common?

It is certainly is not the climate. Uzbekistan, thanks to both nature and the former Soviet Union, is a dry, arid land that is highly polluted. Key West, on the other hand, is a lush, tropical spit of land where the average temperature is in the 80s during the summer and the 70s the rest of the year. Key West is surrounded by water whereas Uzbekistan is landlocked (and so are the countries that surround it).

It certainly is not the government. Uzbekistan, despite breaking free from the Soviets in September 1991, is a one-party state where the government has very tight control over society and the economy. Key West is city with a chicken wrangler on its government payroll because roosters and chickens roam free and do so in close proximity to cats who seem to not mind the presence of the normally tempting fowl. To say that there is a laissez-faire attitude in Key West is perhaps too strict a description of the city.

What, then, do they have in common? The answer -- Uzbeks.

What are Uzbeks doing in Key West? They're doing what almost all immigrants do in coming to the United States. They're looking for a better life. And their quest is a great reminder to the rest of us about what makes the United States the preferred home to so many people from around the world.

If you read nothing about U.S. history or only listened to our current debate, you might be inclined to think the people in the United States sprang up spontaneously sometime in the late 1700s. You would be hard-pressed to understand that this country, with the exception of indigenous peoples, is made up of 100-percent immigrants. We can all trace our roots to another country. And it truly reflects the story of the world -- what was going on during any one period is a good barometer of who the immigrants were and are.

Europeans and Africans dominated the first 100 years as slavery, wars, famines, economic hard times and persecutions of one type or another swept through the regions. But immigrants were not just fleeing their homelands or being brought here against their will; they were also lured to America by the promise of a better life and a great demand for new labor. As the U.S. economy evolved from agriculture to national resource extraction to manufacturing, a middle class began to form. And as the growing middle class moved from labor to management, we needed labor willing to work the hardest jobs; thus the demand for immigrants grew.

That same pattern exists today. While we no longer have such a robust traditional manufacturing base, we do spawn the greatest, most robust intellectual manufacturing enterprises in the world, and we continually need new ideas and people to make them a reality. And our economy remains the most well suited for bringing ideas to fruition and to the world. As the old varied saying goes, "If you can make it in the United States, you can make it anywhere." And with this demand goes an economy that must provide services to our large middle class.

Enter my Uzbek cab driver. Born and educated in Uzbekistan, he could not make a decent living even though he had a college education, so off he came to Key West. Why? Besides the obvious (weather) there are there other Uzbeks in Key West lured by the service/tourism industry, which needs the help due to our demand. Three years ago he started out at the bottom washing dishes, quickly moving up to busing tables then on to waiting tables. Now he owns five cabs, has a condo on Key West (not bad considering the expense of the island) and goes home to visit relatives several times a year. He has plans to expand.

All the while he is on a path to citizenship. And the American story goes on.

We should not forget or dismiss his story because each one of our own stories has very similar roots. In one way or another we all came here for a better life, and collectively America is better off for it. And thus, as we slowly move forward in addressing immigration policy, we must remember our stories because to do otherwise is to deny the lesson of America.

As a side note, like everyone in Key West, he had an opinion on Cuba. He felt strongly that the embargo should be lifted. "The people have been punished long enough," he said. And he should know, having grown up in a Communist state now ruled by a one-party strongman. Food for thought.