By R. Mark Frey
As we approach the end of June, known to many as Immigrant Heritage Month, and prepare to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, one can’t help but marvel at this remarkable day, a sacred day for those of all faiths and persuasions – a day commemorating our declared independence from the colonial rule of Great Britain and King George III. Even today, we continue to struggle with the core principles and ideas laid down by the Founders, trying to apply them in this, the ongoing American Experiment.
Some 241 years ago on that eventful day in 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 the 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 and Immigration, Ellis Island, Golden Gate Bridge, and our much venerated Constitution. Older immigrants, too, seated and leaning forward with their weathered hands propped on their canes, wistfully observing at Fourth of July gatherings how things were back “in the old country” but still committed to a new beginning and determined to make a life in this, a nation of immigrants.
A great experiment indeed as recognized in the Preamble to our Constitution with the following awe-inspiring 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 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.”
Many years ago, Garrison Keillor penned an essay that continues to be relevant today, “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 with the approach of Independence Day since it affirms so much of what’s good about our nation and its potential.
Keillor insightfully observed:
“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…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, what about your ancestors? Did they flee their home country because of religious persecution? Or, didn’t belong to the right tribe? Perhaps they fled military service in a military conflict? Or, were they looking for economic survival? A daughter fleeing female circumcision or forced marriage? The second son denied a share of the family parcel because the eldest son received all? Or, were they simply filled with wanderlust seeking what’s over the next hill ahead? Does it matter?
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. Let us never forget that the promise of America lies with its immigrants and what they bring to this land.
Happy Independence Day!
R. Mark Frey is a St. Paul, Minnesota attorney who has practiced immigration law exclusively for more than 25 years with an emphasis on 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 26, 2015 issue of Asian American Press.