R. MARK FREY
Shortly before the Fourth of July two years ago, 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 announced the House of Representatives would address its own 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 and it’s sadly apparent that it has chosen to delay any substantive action until after the 2016 elections. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? With the impending Fourth of July celebration, it seems an opportune time to take a break and reflect on Independence Day, immigrants, and the great American experiment.
As I noted before, our nation is still relatively young with so much promise. Almost 240 years ago on 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 pronounced:
“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 has formed an indelible mark on the American psyche: Declaration of Independence, 1776, liberty, freedom, equality, Statue of Liberty, immigrants, Ellis Island, Golden Gate Bridge, Constitution, Boston, Philadelphia, Lexington and Concord, and Washington, D.C. Older immigrants, too, seated and leaning forward with their gnarled, arthritic hands propped on their upright canes, wistfully observing at family Fourth of July gatherings how things were back “in the old country” but still committed with gritty determination to a new beginning and life in this, a nation of immigrants. Nor should we forget, for that matter, the words spoken by two of our most famous founders, both of whom died the same day, July 4, 1826, some fifty years after signing the Declaration of Independence. John Adams declared that “Thomas Jefferson still survives” while Thomas Jefferson proclaimed hours earlier that “This is the fourth of July.”
A great experiment indeed as recognized in the Preamble to our Constitution with the following powerful words:
“WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, 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 wrote 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 of history about our country but what does it really mean? Why is this important and how can it possibly relate to the serious issues facing our nation today?
Many years ago, Garrison Keillor penned an essay, “Laying on Our Backs Looking up at the Stars”, in an issue of Newsweek magazine with some thoughts about 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 our nation.
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.”
And, for me, a personal reminiscence from a few years back while attending a conference in Washington, D.C. The conference was held a few days before the Fourth of July and we had decided to stay a few days longer to celebrate the festivities in the capitol. The hotel sat by the Potomac River and was one of those large, monolithic structures built for national conferences and capable of holding several thousand attendees with a large nineteen-story glass atrium, large enough to hold a small village. Hotel management planned on holding a fireworks display just outside the atrium the evening of the Fourth. We decided to position ourselves a few stories above the atrium’s ground floor away from the large crowd below for a closer view of the fireworks display. It turned out to be spectacular but even more remarkable was the gathering of hotel staff members (comprised of recent immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America) who slowly joined us to watch the fireworks display. After a period of time, ever so slowly, I heard a soft solitary voice in that group commence singing “America the Beautiful” and gradually more staff members joined in, followed eventually by many of the hotel residents who also gathered there to watch the fireworks display. By the end of the song, we had formed a temporary community, a group of people sharing a moment in time, commemorating the founding of these United States.
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 both celebrating our unity and 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 it’s time for action. It’s the patriotic thing to do and, after all, it’s our government.
Happy Independence Day with Liberty and Justice for All!
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.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the June 28, 2013 issue of Asian American Press.