July 4, 1776: A date worth celebrating. A great idea was born. A dream that eventually flourished into a distinctive country, where equality and unalienable rights formed the basis for a government for and by the people. A country that has had internal struggles and inconsistencies, some quite horrific, but that has emerged at critical times in history as a worldwide beacon for freedom and democracy. A country that is now facing one of its most significant challenges, a struggle for its very own soul. Who are we, America?
This July 4, I want to celebrate America by paying tribute to an engine of our strength, renewal and innovation: Immigration.
I am myself a naturalized U.S. citizen. My migration story extends across three continents, but is unique only in the details. Human migrations started over a million years ago, driven by both opportunities and threats.
There have been transformative migration successes, both individually and collectively. Looking no further, immigration fueled the melting pot of races, cultures and creeds that has made the U.S. the most powerful nation in the world.
According to the Tenement Museum, there are 86.4 million immigrants and their American-born children in the U.S. Almost half (49 percent) are naturalized citizens. They contributed $2 trillion dollars to the 2016 gross domestic product. In 2017, they founded or co-founded 43 percent of Fortune 500 companies, 25 percent of all new businesses, and half of Silicon Valley high-tech startups.
Beyond statistics, many of our most proud achievements as a nation are directly tied to the labor and creativity of immigrants or their children. Declaration of Independence? World War II? Landing on the moon? Medical breakthroughs? Innovations in science and technology? Sports? Arts? Human rights? The footprint of impact is broad, impressive, and a reason for heartfelt celebration.
Why then are the U.S. government and so many of our citizens treating immigration, and in particular that from poor countries, as anathema? Why are we committing indefensible acts of discrimination and abuse towards those seeking refuge in our country, including children?
Yes, desperation-driven migration is spinning dangerously out of control. That is a worldwide phenomenon, the fruits of over-population, famine, violence, political instability and climate change, among others. This creates real, and increasing, economic, cultural and security stresses for host countries.
But the problem is too complex for naive solutions. Here, in the U.S., as elsewhere. No, a border wall is not the solution. Neither is separating children from their parents. For-profit, dehumanizing detention camps are not the solution either. Nor is reneging on humanitarian and legal norms for asylum. Those actions diminish us, they do not protect us.
Real solutions require vision, courage, understanding and empathy. We must give people options to stay where they were born, by positively and respectfully affecting local economies and political systems. We must pass fair and balanced immigration laws, and enforce them humanely. We must integrate immigrants — of all origins and skills — in ways that help them, the U.S., and their countries of origin.
Could others know us better than we do ourselves? As a French diplomat (Alexis de Tocqueville, 1805-1859) once said, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great”.
We are (still) a rich, influential, generous and creative country. We must take a step back from the disruptive politics of the day. We must seek unity around common principles of goodness, freedom and equality.
Together, we must take our future in our hands, through informed electoral choices and visionary improvements to our government system. In the process, we must recognize that the future will be brighter by continuing to enable and catalyze the energy and ideas of immigrants, towards a common greater good.
This Fourth of July, let’s celebrate immigration as we re-commit to make the U.S. a land of opportunity and social justice.
Antonio Baptista lives in Mt. Hood-Parkdale.