By Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO
It was a sweltering day in Baltimore yesterday, but while I was driving to a backyard barbecue I got goose bumps. I had the radio tuned to a live broadcast from the White House, where men and women who serve in the US military were being sworn in as naturalized American citizens — new Americans by choice. Two weeks ago I attended a similar gathering at the State Department, where on World Refugee Day, a group of men and women who came to this country as refugees — fleeing for their lives — also became new Americans.
Despite yesterday’s brutally hot temperatures, I got the chills, because in that moment when the oath of allegiance was administered, it was so very clear why America is great. We have a centuries-old tradition of welcoming newcomers, we believe in the importance of families being together, we look to the future and what we can become, and we believe that each person should have opportunities to fulfill their dreams while giving back to our nation and communities.
Yesterday, President Obama spoke to these service members, who are truly heroes, and welcomed them as new citizens. He also called on each of us to remember the importance of immigrants in the building of our nation and invited Americans to stand with and for immigrants by enacting the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform when he said:
With this ceremony today — and ceremonies like it across our country — we affirm another truth: Our American journey, our success, would simply not be possible without the generations of immigrants who have come to our shores from every corner of the globe. We say it so often, we sometimes forget what it means — we are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are one of the first Americans, a Native American, we are all descended from folks who came from someplace else — whether they arrived on the Mayflower or on a slave ship, whether they came through Ellis Island or crossed the Rio Grande.
Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence. Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand. Immigrants took up arms to preserve our union, to defeat fascism, and to win a Cold War. Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone. So the story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of “them,” it’s a story of “us.” It’s who we are. And now, all of you get to write the next chapter.
It has taken these men and women — these Americans — years, even decades, to realize their dream. And this, too, reminds us of a lesson of the Fourth. On that July day, our Founders declared their independence. But they only declared it; it would take another seven years to win the war. Fifteen years to forge a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Nearly 90 years, and a great Civil War, to abolish slavery. Nearly 150 years for women to win the right to vote. Nearly 190 years to enshrine voting rights. And even now, we’re still perfecting our union, still extending the promise of America.
That includes making sure the American dream endures for all those — like these men and women — who are willing to work hard, play by the rules and meet their responsibilities. For just as we remain a nation of laws, we have to remain a nation of immigrants. And that’s why, as another step forward, we’re lifting the shadow of deportation from serving — from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. It’s why we still need a DREAM Act — to keep talented young people who want to contribute to our society and serve our country. It’s why we need — why America’s success demands — comprehensive immigration reform.
Because the lesson of these 236 years is clear — immigration makes America stronger. Immigration makes us more prosperous. And immigration positions America to lead in the 21st century. And these young men and women are testaments to that. No other nation in the world welcomes so many new arrivals. No other nation constantly renews itself, refreshes itself with the hopes, and the drive, and the optimism, and the dynamism of each new generation of immigrants. You are all one of the reasons that America is exceptional. You’re one of the reasons why, even after two centuries, America is always young, always looking to the future, always confident that our greatest days are still to come.
I hope you had a memorable 4th of July with family and friends. For me, my neighborhood parade and the amazing fireworks over Baltimore’s Inner Harbor couldn’t top the pride and joy I felt in the welcome extended to the heroes who became our country’s newest Americans by choice. We are blessed to be able to call them “fellow Americans.”
Image credit: Ikluft