Even as one of America’s most accomplished physicians — a man considered an international leader in the field of pediatric pulmonary medicine — Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte has sometimes been stigmatized for his immigrant status. Years ago, for example, after he’d been offered a dual executive-professorial position at a prestigious university, the university’s dean abruptly rescinded the offer over lunch: “I’ll never give that position to a first-generation Italian,” the dean said when Piedimonte asked for a reason. “You guys are too angry.”
They forget that just a few decades ago, their own relatives came into this country asking for a job.
It was an unconscionable affront given “how much unforgiving work is involved for [an immigrant] to make it here in the U.S.,” Dr. Piedimonte says. “To go through all the steps, especially when English isn’t your first language, and you have an accent, and nobody gives you anything for free.”
Dr. Piedimonte came to the United States as a pediatric resident in the late 1980s. Unlike his native Italy, where academic advancement was nepotistic and political, the United States clearly valued merit. So he struggled for years on little money until he started winning research grants and receiving offers to teach at major universities.
Today, Dr. Piedimonte feels fortunate to be at the Cleveland Clinic, a leading hospital that he says respects the important role immigrants play in the city’s health care system. A third of Dr. Piedimonte’s colleagues are immigrants, according to the Clinic. “The United States has been built by these people,” he says. “They bring an immense amount of energy and talent, which is the strength of this country. The people today who don’t want immigrants to stay are the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of exactly those kinds of people.” He reminds people who are reluctant to accept immigrants into the country that immigration brought us luminaries like Einstein, and that even those who aren’t rocket scientists make a positive contribution to society.
“We have a shortage of physicians. Among physicians, there is a horrendous shortage of certain specialists,” he says. “This affects our ability to deliver care to American citizens, especially in rural areas, like in eastern Ohio.” In an op-ed for Cleveland.com, Dr. Piedimonte pointed to research from the Association of American Medical Colleges, which found that by 2025 the United States would face a shortage of between 46,000 to 90,000 physicians. “So why not create norms to make it easier to bring folks from outside the U.S. and train them to be specialists we need?” he asks. He feels the same way about manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries. “I think that, very simply, we have to understand there are needs of this country to be fulfilled, so we have to let people in. Even more importantly, if the United States wants to continue in its current role as a global leader we will need to have ready access to the best minds in the world.”
Dr. Piedimonte also wishes that native-born Americans would stop discriminating against immigrants who are already here. “I am the father of six children, American-born, all speaking English,” he says. “But without me and their mother — a Colombian immigrant — they wouldn’t exist. I’m afraid that in generations they’ll start hating Italians and Colombians while forgetting that we gave them their genes and nurtured the talents that allowed them to succeed.”
It’s a lesson Dr. Piedimonte would like to teach the political leaders who want to erect a wall around the country: “They forget that just a few decades ago, their own relatives came into this country asking for a job.”