Independence Day: Immigrants and the Great American Experiment

Independence Day: Immigrants and the Great American Experiment

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Around this time last year, just before the 4th of July celebration, I wrote about comprehensive immigration reform and expressed high hopes that 2013 would be the year for sorely needed change.

At that time, the Senate was on the verge of passing its immigration reform package and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) had maintained that the House would address its version of immigration reform before the summer recess commenced in August. Much has happened since then or should I say nothing much has happened when it comes to comprehensive immigration reform?

Although the Senate passed its immigration bill, the House continues to dawdle as ongoing rumors report that there may be a window of opportunity for action sometime this summer or then again not until next year after the midterm elections. With the impending 4th of July holiday, it seems appropriate to take a break and reflect on Independence Day, immigrants, and the great American experiment.

As I noted last year, our nation is still so very young with so much promise. Just over 235 years ago, on Independence Day, July 4, 1776, the United States of America was founded with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. That document proclaimed:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

The members of the Continental Congress knew full well that by signing this historic document, they faced certain death should this great experiment fail.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The iconic imagery linked to Independence Day flows freely from one’s imagination and the American psyche: Declaration of Independence, 1776, liberty, freedom, Statue of Liberty, immigrants, Ellis Island, Golden Gate Bridge, “a nation of immigrants”, equality, Constitution, “back in the old country…”, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Lexington and Concord.

A great experiment indeed as recognized in the Preamble to our Constitution which declares:

“WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

And again, years later, as Abraham Lincoln penned the stirring words in his Gettysburg Address during yet another trying time in our nation’s history:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure… that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Some would say that’s all fine and good and it’s great to know a bit about our country and its history but what does it mean? Why is this important and how can it possibly relate to issues facing our nation today?

Many years ago, Garrison Keillor wrote an essay, “Laying on Our Backs Looking up at the Stars”, in an issue of Newsweek magazine where he ruminated on the United States, its Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and immigrants coming to this great land. I often think of that essay as we approach Independence Day because it affirms so much of what’s good about the United States.

Keillor insightfully observed that:

“To give up your country is the hardest thing a person can do: to leave the old familiar places and ship out over the edge of the world to America and learn everything over again different than you learned as a child, learn the new language that you will never be so smart or funny in as in your true language. And yet people still come – from Russia, Vietnam, and Cambodia and Laos, Ethiopia, Iran, Haiti, Korea, Cuba, Chile, and they come on behalf of their children, and they come for freedom. Not for our land (Russia is as beautiful), not for our culture (they have their own, thank you), not for our standard of living (it frankly ain’t that great), not for our system of government (they don’t know about it, may not even agree with it), but for freedom. They are heroes who make an adventure on our behalf, showing us by their struggle how precious beyond words freedom is, and if we knew their stories, we could not keep back the tears.”

Immigrants remind us of our past and our forebears, our connection to the old country and its ways, who we were and who we came from, and why we are what we are today. But, at the same time, immigrants remind us of the future and what we as a people can achieve while celebrating our unity and at the same time embracing our diversity. The promise of America lies with its immigrants and what they bring to this land. Passage of comprehensive immigration reform will go far in repairing our current dysfunctional immigration system. Call your representatives in Congress and let them know that it’s time for action. Remember it’s our government.

Happy Independence Day with liberty and justice for all!

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the June 28, 2013 issue of Asian American Press.

R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on political asylum, family and marriage-based immigration, naturalization, removal defense, appeals, H-1B visas, and religious workers.