“Give me your tired, and your poor”

On this Independence Day I have been thinking about the thorny issue of immigration.  There were many points in the speech on immigration reform that the President gave at American University in Washington last Thursday that I found really struck a chord. 

The President speaks at the American University School of International Service

 “…we’ve always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants — a nation that welcomes those willing to embrace America’s precepts.  Indeed, it is this constant flow of immigrants that helped to make America what it is.  The scientific breakthroughs of Albert Einstein, the inventions of Nikola Tesla, the great ventures of Andrew Carnegie’s U.S. Steel and Sergey Brin’s Google, Inc. -– all this was possible because of immigrants…

“And then there are the countless names and the quiet acts that never made the history books but were no less consequential in building this country — the generations who braved hardship and great risk to reach our shores in search of a better life for themselves and their families;

 “…men and women across this country…remind us that immigrants have always helped to build and defend this country -– and that being an American is not a matter of blood or birth.  It’s a matter of faith.  It’s a matter of fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear.  That’s what makes us unique.  That’s what makes us strong…

“Now, we can’t forget that this process of immigration and eventual inclusion has often been painful.  Each new wave of immigrants has generated fear and resentments towards newcomers, particularly in times of economic upheaval… And it’s made worse by a failure of those of us in Washington to fix a broken immigration system.

“The result is an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States… And billions in tax revenue are lost each year because many undocumented workers are paid under the table.

“More fundamentally, the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are going through the process of immigrating legally…

“…there are those in the immigrants’ rights community who have argued passionately that we should simply provide those who are here illegally with legal status… but I believe such an indiscriminate approach would be both unwise and unfair.

“Ultimately, our nation, like all nations, has the right and obligation to control its borders and set laws for residency and citizenship.  And no matter how decent they are, no matter their reasons, the 11 million who broke these laws should be held accountable.

“… if the majority of Americans are skeptical of a blanket amnesty, they are also skeptical that it is possible to round up and deport 11 million people…even if it was possible, a program of mass deportations would disrupt our economy and communities in ways that most Americans would find intolerable. 

“Now, once we get past the two poles of this debate, it becomes possible to shape a practical, common-sense approach that reflects our heritage and our values. 

“Government has a threshold responsibility to secure our borders…Today, we have more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history…The southern border is more secure today than at any time in the past 20 years…But our borders are just too vast for us to be able to solve the problem only with fences and border patrols…That’s why businesses must be held accountable if they break the law by deliberately hiring and exploiting undocumented workers… ultimately, if the demand for undocumented workers falls, the incentive for people to come here illegally will decline as well.   

“Finally, we have to demand responsibility from people living here illegally.  They must be required to admit that they broke the law.  They should be required to register, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English.  They must get right with the law before they can get in line and earn their citizenship… Being a citizen of this country comes not only with rights but also with certain fundamental responsibilities. 

“Now, stopping illegal immigration must go hand in hand with reforming our creaky system of legal immigration… We should make it easier for the best and the brightest to come to start businesses and develop products and create jobs. 

“…these are the essential elements of comprehensive immigration reform.  The question now is whether we will have the courage and the political will to pass a bill through Congress, to finally get it done… the natural impulse among those who run for office is to turn away and defer this question for another day, or another year, or another administration.  Despite the courageous leadership in the past shown by many Democrats and some Republicans — including, by the way, my predecessor, President Bush -– this has been the custom.  That is why a broken and dangerous system that offends our most basic American values is still in place.

“But I believe we can put politics aside and finally have an immigration system that’s accountable.  I believe we can appeal not to people’s fears but to their hopes, to their highest ideals, because that’s who we are as Americans.  It’s been inscribed on our nation’s seal since we declared our independence.  “E pluribus unum.”  Out of many, one.  That is what has drawn the persecuted and impoverished to our shores…That’s what has led people to endure untold hardships to reach this place called America. 

“One of the largest waves of immigration in our history took place little more than a century ago.  At the time, Jewish people were being driven out of Eastern Europe…Once here, many made their homes in a teeming and bustling Lower Manhattan. 

“It was at this time that a young woman named Emma Lazarus, whose own family fled persecution from Europe generations earlier, took up the cause of these new immigrants.  Although she was a poet, she spent much of her time advocating for better health care and housing for the newcomers.  And inspired by what she saw and heard, she wrote down her thoughts and donated a piece of work to help pay for the construction of a new statue — the Statue of Liberty — which actually was funded in part by small donations from people across America. 

“Years before the statue was built — years before it would be seen by throngs of immigrants craning their necks skyward at the end of long and brutal voyage, years before it would come to symbolize everything that we cherish — she imagined what it could mean.  She imagined the sight of a giant statue at the entry point of a great nation -– but unlike the great monuments of the past, this would not signal an empire.  Instead, it would signal one’s arrival to a place of opportunity and refuge and freedom. 

“ “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand,” she wrote,

A mighty woman with a torch…
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome…
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”…
“Give me your tired, and your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to be free…
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“Let us remember these words.  For it falls on each generation to ensure that that lamp -– that beacon -– continues to shine as a source of hope around the world, and a source of our prosperity here at home.”

The last part of the speech gave me a lump in my throat.

I had also had dreams of “craning my neck skywards” as I sailed past the Statue of Liberty when I immigrated.  I began investigating cargo ships, which would take a certain number of passengers, only to discover that my first port of call would probably be somewhere like Houston and I would have to go through the immigration process there.  That rather deflated the image and so, instead, I ended up flying into the Nation’s Capital, arriving at Dulles Airport in July 1997. 

The build up and the organization to get to that point had been enormous.  After seemingly countess forms, many visits to the US consulate in Johannesburg and jumping though bureaucratic hoops, I was holding a slim, sealed package that seemed to contain my whole life.  In it were my South African passport; the application form for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration (the idea of applying to be an “alien” conjuring up peculiar Science Fiction images); my South African birth certificate; a police certificate indicating that I had no criminal record; two color photographs (which had to be “just so” in three-quarter profile with the right ear showing); a series of bank statements and reports providing evidence that I would not be likely to become a public charge while in the United States; my marriage certificate, since my being able to apply for immigration to the United States was the great gift of my American-born husband; and a full medical report, complete with chest x-rays to prove the absence of tuberculosis.

The stamp that the immigration official at Dulles Airport put in my passport was good for a year, to cover the period it took for my green card to arrive.  After that, I had to apply for the two year temporary status to be converted to the full status.  Although my husband and I had been interviewed at the American Embassy in Johannesburg by a diplomat, we had not been subjected to one of those invasive grillings so amusingly portrayed in the film, “Green Card”, with Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu, when every intimate detail is picked apart.  Instead, because we had not, at this time, been married for more than two years, they took the precaution of conferring temporary status for two years to be sure that this was not one of those marriages of convenience for me to get a green card.  In due course, after more forms, bureaucracy and fees, my permanent green card was granted. 

As the spouse of an American citizen I was on the “fast track” so I applied for US citizenship as soon as I had been in the country for three years.  This entailed more bureaucracy, of course, and a fairly stringent test (covering some aspects of US history and constitution that even native-born Americans didn’t know!) eventually leading to a thrilling swearing-in ceremony in May 2001.  I lost no time in applying for an American passport and, when it came – unobtrusively in the mail one day – I was alone, and remember just hugging it to my chest in a transport of delight.

The whole process, from the decision  to immigrate to being a fully fledge American citizen with a United States passport, had taken over five years, with many emotional ups and downs, to say nothing of the dogged perseverance that one needs when dealing with red tape.  This is about as streamlined as it can get, however, and I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for those living “in the shadows” as they call it, with a language barrier to complicate the issues.

The President is right: something has to be done to stem the tide of illegal immigrants, but it must also be possible for legitimate immigrants to have the right to continue the tradition of America being a nation of immigrants.  When I became a citizen, the judge who swore us in urged us to assimilate on the one hand but never to lose what we brought from our native countries because it was that which contributed to the richness of the American society.  Yet, even for me, who had it comparatively easy, the process has been complicated, at times almost overwhelmingly so. 

Let’s hope that this, finally, is the administration that has the will and the support to be able to find the right balance and do something to ameliorate the fractured system.

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